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.
Santa talking to the Suit
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.