I know what you’re thinking. Really, Jae? Ernest Saves Christmas? Well heavens to Betsy, yes, Ernest Saves Christmas! If Ernest didn’t save it where would we be?
One thing you should know about my family is we love quirky, campy movies—especially my dad. He had a penchant for being up late for one reason or another and finding wacky movies on TV he’d rent for us later to enjoy with him. I think Ernest Saves Camp is what started it, but eventually we saw most of the Ernest movies.
But back to Ernest Saves Christmas. Despite its slapstick humor and absurdist approach, having watched it recently, it is a pretty decent little film. There are lots of good storytelling elements in it. What is it about?
An obnoxious and bumbling but well-meaning man attempts to help Santa Claus find a successor. Failure means there would be no Christmas.
No Christmas?! That’s nearly as high stakes as you can get. It certainly worked well for the Nightmare Before Christmas.
LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING
One little nitpicky thing about the show I have to point out is the whole Coca-Cola Santas opening. It doesn’t really give us a sense of what to expect from the movie at all, except that Santa will be in it. It’s more like filler to get the credits out of the way so the real movie can begin. Whenever we create story, each piece should have a role to play in moving the story along. Granted, this is an Ernest movie, but so what? Each story you write should be your best.
Now when the movie does get started, the opening scene is between some suit and a kindly older gentlemen who looks an awful lot like you-know-who. As the audience, we know what you-know-who means when he says certain things, but the suit takes it to mean that Santa’s just an old businessmen, talking about business. This kind of double-meaning dialogue works fantastically because it creates the tension of knowing something one character doesn’t. We feel like we’re in on a secret. It’s a fairly well-written scene, with a few extra winks and nods in case we don’t get that it’s Santa, but this is a kid’s movie after all. If you can craft clever dialogue that on the surface sounds like one thing, but underneath means something completely different, you’ll create a delightful exchange your readers will enjoy. However, you must trust that your audience is smart enough to figure it out and not try and purposely point out your cleverness. Something like this needs to be discovered if it is to be done well.
Interspersed with this scene we first meet Ernest. We realize almost right away what kind of guy he is, as he sings ‘O Christmas Tree’ as a 3-word song (not very bright, but passionate). He doesn’t have to tell us he loves Christmas, he’s singing it, accentuated by the way he has his cab decorated and how he nearly causes a multi-car pileup just to save a Christmas tree. Later in the movie he mentions how much he loves Christmas, but it’s unnecessary. We’ve already seen it. When you’re crafting your scenes, think of ways you can show us what your character loves or desires without telling us. Plant it in descriptions of their world, things they’re surrounded by, actions they would take.
What I love about Ernest singing O Christmas Tree the way he does is it shows us two things about him immediately, he’s not very bright, but he’s passionate about Christmas. We realize this is probably going to be a story about an underdog whose passion will save the day.
There are so many wonderful stakes set up in here, you can’t help but root for everyone and everything. Santa must find a replacement, as the magic of Christmas is a torch that must be passed or it will be extinguished. A troubled teen needs to find herself, or risk losing what good is left in her forever. A kids’ TV show actor must make a choice between sticking to his values and risking has-been land, or sacrificing his soul for a career. And all of these stakes are heavily hinged upon each other, meaning all will suffer in one way or another if one fails. The overarching high stakes is that Santa will be no more, and millions of children will lose the hope of Christmas.
Ernest, though cast as the protagonist, is actually more like an emcee, taking us through each act, helping us to understand the stakes through his view of the world. In another sense, Ernest with his pure childlike view of Christmas also represents those children who will be devastated if Christmas is destroyed.
For all the bad rap the movie gets in reviews and rating, it’s got some fairly decent story construction in it. After all, aren’t some of the most important questions in telling story those such as: What are the stakes? What will happen if the protagonist fails? Who will be the most affected if he fails?
One of the things I’ve been learning about reading Story by Robert McKee is this idea of changing the values of your story from the negative to the positive, or the positive to the negative. For example, your character may believe justice will prevail at the beginning of a scene, but because of what happens during the scene we end with injustice prevailing. Or perhaps they’re certain life will be wholly unjust at the beginning of the scene, but by the end they realize justice can be achieved. The point is we should start out believing their world will work a certain way at the beginning of the scene and see it shifted to something opposing at the end.
In the movie Ernest knows Pamela (the teen girl) has been dishonest from time to time and has expressed that she’s okay with it. So toward the end of the movie, when she’s behaving suspiciously, he suggests Santa double-check his magic bag and make sure she hasn’t switched it. Santa says he’s sure Pamela hasn’t done anything, but Ernest insists, so they check the bag. It is Santa’s bag. “Trust people,” Santa encourages Ernest, who goes from distrusting to trusting.
But only a few moments later we see Pamela switch and steal Santa’s bag (hoping to magically pull something valuable from it). Later after Ernest has dropped Santa off to speak to Joe (the man who would be the next Santa), Santa realizes he’s been duped by Pamela when he sees Ernest had been right all along. His view shifts from trusting to distrusting. Plus as the audience we think for a moment, oh, maybe she won’t steal it, which sets us up to feel more strongly Santa’s reaction when he realizes he was wrong about her (at least in that moment).
All of this value shifting, even in this one instance, works together to build tension and drive the plot toward the final climax. If your story doesn’t shift back and forth enough, the readers will be bored. Too much and they’ll think it’s absurd. But it must happen, and your cleverness as a writer comes in figuring out how to create these shifts and make them appear seamless to your readers.
I’m sure you’ve guessed that Christmas was saved (it’s in the title after all). Another thing I’ve recently read about in Story is crafting a resolution. Though he’s specifically speaking of movies, his advice is still sagely for any story. In a nutshell he says after you’ve brought your audience through a satisfying and emotional climax, you can’t just call it quits and fade to black right there. You’ve got to give them just a little breathing room to sort out what they’ve just been through. That doesn’t mean you start up a whole new plot, or create a scene that wraps everything up super neatly with characters explaining everything we’ve missed. As McKee says, think of it as a slow curtain at the end of a play.
For Ernest Saves Christmas, the climax is everyone just makes it in time for Joe to become Santa and still be able to deliver all the toys he needs to deliver on Christmas Eve. Ernest and Pamela are invited to join in on one last sleigh ride and they fly away to off screen adventures. Previous Santa and an old woman he’s met wave goodbye, and instead of following the others on their new adventure, we stay with Previous Santa and the old woman. She asks him what he’s doing for Christmas and they end up walking off, arms linked, company for each other. It’s a quiet and tender moment, the perfect slow curtain for the presentation we’ve just seen.
But Previous Santa does not start a monologue in which he explains to the old woman how close everything was, how he worried Joe wouldn’t come, but thankfully he finally did; how he worried Ernest might not show up in time with the sleigh, but wouldn’t you know it he shows up with a minute to spare; and how Pamela finally had that change of heart he was hoping for and showed up with the bag. Resolution doesn’t mean recap. It means showing us how the world of the story has been affected, bringing it to a satisfying conclusion (satisfying, not necessarily positive, for all of you with dark endings out there).
I really like this movie, but I like campy things and I like it when Ernest does his different impressions to help save the day. If Ernest drives you crazy, you may not enjoy the film, but either way it’s worth a watch to see these story telling elements in action. I’ve included one of my favorite scenes below. 🙂
Have you seen the movie? What did you think? If you hated it, why? Loved it, why? Have you seen any other movies you feel use these principles well? Any movies you wish had utilized these principles better? Let me know in the comments below.