Once the turkey has been consumed and the Christmas lights are untangled, the Christmas films are pulled from their dusty box or, nowadays, their streaming service of choice. Everyone has their own personal holiday canon ranging from the animated classics of Rankin and Bass and Charles Schultz, the ones that take place on or around Christmas like Die Hard, Eyes Wide Shut, Tangerine, and Brazil, and the schlock that’s incredibly baffling like The Nutcracker in 3D, The Christmas Tree (1991), and today’s focus, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.
“The amazing story of Santa in big trouble and his exciting rescue by the daring Ice Cream Bunny.” At least, that’s what the poster wants you to believe but the film is a far cry from that. Partially filmed by low-budget director Barry Mahon (best known for Rocket Attack U.S.A. among fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as well as some nudie flicks) and R. Winer, this poor excuse for children’s entertainment is the Plan 9 From Outer Space of Christmas films. It’s one of those “Santa’s in trouble” Christmas films that crop up every year but the predicament in question is far from dire.
Santa is “stuck” in his sleigh on the beach and his reindeer ran off back to the North Pole. I use “stuck” loosely as the sleigh is under maybe an inch of sand at best, making Santa nothing more than an incompetent schmuck. He summons a bunch of kids with his mind and tries to get them to help pull the sleigh by raiding a 4-H show, essentially. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn make an appearance as well but they are as useless as the livestock. When the attempts fail, the children gather around to hear the story of Thumbelina (or Jack and the Beanstalk depending on the print) in a half-assed effort to learn that you must have faith and believe.
The film takes a turn for the strange as it introduces more framing devices and film credits. To make sense of this matryoshka doll, an offscreen narrator for the Santa Claus segments tells of Santa telling a story to the kids that features a girl staring at a cheap diorama of Thumbelina that also has narration and film credits. This seems like a lot but, in my personal film history, it can’t touch the number of levels like Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, reaching the lower tens sometimes. With characters like leopard-print frogs that have trouble getting laid, a zombified bird, brainwashed flower children, and a perverted mole intent on marrying Thumbelina despite their age difference, there’s nothing to gain from this story even with the shoehorned moral from Bad Santa in his sweat-stained suit.
When we return to the film proper, the kids end up running away and give us some of the most baffling eight minutes in cinematic history. A war siren is heard in the distance as we slowly see our “daring” hero in the “exciting” rescue, a poor man in a cheap rabbit costume with zero visibility trying to drive an old-fashioned firetruck on rough terrain. Once he arrives, Santa talks to him while the bunny just stares at us, nodding and knowing he’s in this mess of a film. After Santa hops on the truck and leaves, the kids gather around one side of the sleigh and the film has the gall to show that this entire film could have been avoided because the sleigh just vanishes with magic. I know it sounds like Glinda bringing up the ruby slippers at the end but this time, it’s not justified. It’s one of the worst examples of a deus ex machina to ever be put on film and it will infuriate anyone who sees it.
Now, why in the world do I get pleasure from watching this film? For me, it’s about watching others react to it as it defies what up until then they knew what films were. That and it is perfect fodder for riffing, as demonstrated by RiffTrax way back in 2010. My story, however, starts in the summer of 2012.
Before I graduated with a film degree, I started off thinking I was cut out for computer animation. I was fruitlessly working with two upperclassmen over the summer trying to get this animated short off the ground when all animation majors should’ve been helping. I needed some background noise and, having finished Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, I decided to tackle this show called Mystery Science Theater 3000. I started by watching the shorts and then slowly started from season one (to this day, I’m only halfway through season 6). After feeding my appetite there, I discovered RiffTrax on YouTube with some best-of compilation videos, one of them being Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. At the time, a kind soul happened to upload the full film sans commentary with the memorable description of “You’re welcome.” My mind just melted from the sheer incompetency of it all; after all, the only bad Christmas film I knew of was Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (in which Santa does not do that). This was on a whole other level. It was something that I had to share with others.
So, I invited (or lured, depending on your reading) some friends to the university’s screening room to watch it. A couple managed to drag the couch from the common area into the small room. I queued the video and let it run and saw each of their faces display more and more confusion and anger with some therapeutic laughs between groans. I was both Dr. Forrester and Joel/Mike and still am each time I bring people into the cult of the Ice Cream Bunny.
Since those college days, I’ve learned that the full film has since been removed from YouTube for one reason or another. I’ve gone ahead and ordered the RiffTrax DVD that was released in 2010, slowly adding to my small MST3K library. It turns out that they’ve excised two musical numbers from the Thumbelina portion to make it a tidy ninety-six minutes instead of the regular one hundred minutes or so but you can barely tell. I recently took the DVD for a spin and brought my partner’s younger brother into the fold, watching his emotions transform with each noted beat of the film. Seeing it all go down and ending with gobsmacked silence is one of the best things to witness, aside from the post-film discussion because I want them to verbalize what they experienced since it’s really what it is.
I know it’s not even near the realm of what’s considered good cinema. Hell, it’s barely squatting on the border of cinema because of what we have as the final product. I have films that are considered trashy like Meet the Feebles and some John Waters’ more notorious works sitting on my shelf among the likes of some Best Picture winners and classic films. And yet, why do I like this obvious dumpster fire? I guess it’s a matter of seeing that we’re only human because even the best of artists fall short sometimes. I admire the works of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and Stanley Kubrick but I know they have some weak spots in their respective filmographies. In the case of Barry Mahon and the other directors involved, that’s a little harder to spot since their relative filmography is weak. Nonetheless, we’re all human.
Find a friend who has this on DVD or otherwise, crack open a cold one, and just watch in amazement at how incompetent you can be over the holidays, especially for something that was packaged as a kid’s film. Don’t subject actual children to this film because they’re better than that and deserve to be treated with respect. Just enjoy yourselves and have fun with the experience that is Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.