DIRECTED BY: R. Winer, Barry Mahon (Thumbelina)
FEATURING: Jay Ripley, Shay Garner
PLOT: Santa’s sleigh is stuck in the Florida sand, so he shows the assembled kids a movie until help arrives in the form of a giant rabbit-man in a fire truck.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is weird enough to make the List, but the fact that it can only be endured by injecting Novocaine directly into the part of the brain responsible for processing continuity would make Certifying this movie a public health risk.
COMMENTS: When someone like me, who’s watched They Saved Hitler’s Brain multiple times—voluntarily, not as part of a CIA experiment in breaking interrogee’s wills—tells you that Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is quite possibly the worst movie they’ve ever seen, you should take notice. First off, there’s the paradoxical fact that Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is hardly Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny at all. It’s actually much more Thumbelina. Or, maybe it’s primarily an advertisement for a sad-sack, pre-Disneyland southern Florida bemusement park called Pirates [sic] World. If you’re confused, and not concerned with the prospect of having Ice Cream Bunny‘s plot spoiled, then read on.
The movie begins with what looks like home-movie footage of Santa’s sleigh stuck in the sand on a Florida beach. The tone-deaf Kris Kringle sings a plaintive (dubbed) tune of lament, then falls asleep, then psychically summons the neighborhood children to help him. (This sequence of events suggests that the entire movie may be St. Nick’s heat-stroke influenced nightmare). At any rate, the children flock to his aid, bringing livestock (?) and a man in a gorilla suit (??) to attempt to dislodge the sleigh out of the half-inch of sand it’s buried in (why did the kids think a pig would succeed where eight magical reindeer had failed?) When this brain-dead plan predictably bears no fruit, Santa decides to tell everyone a story—a story of eternal hope, a story about a magical place called Pirates World.
Actually, the story is the fairy tale “Thumbelina.” But we can’t simply jump into it. That would be disorienting. Instead, we watch a teenage girl in a red miniskirt (Shay Garner, the only cast member of Ice Cream Bunny to find acting work later in life) sample various rides at Pirate’s World, including their famous “reindeer on a rail” thrill ride, as a disembodied castrato sings “if I were Thumbelina…” on the soundtrack. Miniskirt girl walks into Pirates World’s “Hans Christen Andersen Fairy Land” Theater, and suddenly the Thumbelina credits roll. (You may notice that Thumbelina is directed by Barry Mahon, and you may ask yourself, “where do I know that name?” If you’re an elderly pervert, you’ll soon realize that Barry is the nudie-cutie specialist responsible for such erotic atrocities as Cuban Rebel Girls, Fanny Hill Meets Lady Chatterly, and The Diary of Knockers McCalla). The movie-inside-a-movie begins with miniskirt-girl staring into a diorama box while a droning female voice coming out of a speaker on a wall relates the tale of the two-inch-high Thumbelina, who is born out of a flower via a witch’s spell, is abducted by a matrimony-minded frog, and then barely escapes being married off to a decrepit old mole. Miniskirt-girl imagines herself as the heroine in the story: we see many, many shots of her staring with unbelievably rapt attention at the display. The actual Thumbelina segments occupy about an hour (!) of the running time, and the production values are significantly higher than in the Santa segments—which is to say, they look like a filmed version of a high school play instead of a ten-year-old’s attempts to make a home movie. Although the acting is as mind-numbingly unemotive as the rest of Ice Cream Bunny, Thumbelina at least includes mildly interesting and very colorful costumes and sets, including a forest with toadstools that get covered in ice during the winter months, and flower petals large enough to hide skinny teenagers. Thumbelina finally escapes the constant threat of bestiality and, much like Liza Minelli, eventually marries a fairy prince. Her alter-ego, miniskirt chick, earns an even more exciting reward: she’s allowed to stroll out of Pirates World.
Back in Ice Cream Bunny, Santa explains the moral of the story he’s just told, which, surprisingly, isn’t “be sure to visit Pirates World!” but rather “never give up hope.” Following his own advice, in his own way, sweaty Santa sheds his fur coat to reveal his festive red pit-stained t-shirt, and takes another nap. He’s awakened by the sound of a fire engine siren. It seems the children’s dog has informed Pirates World employee the Ice Cream Bunny (presumably, he serves Ice Cream at the park—no connection to the dessert is specified by the text) of St. Nick’s plight, and he’s come to help. Santa gets dressed so the kids won’t see him out of uniform; he has plenty of time to do so, as the ICB’s antique vehicle is only capable of a top speed of about 5 mph, and we watch every second of his journey from the amusement park to the beach. The Bunny himself is a nightmarish apparition, half mothballed-Easter mascot from a defunct department store, half Frank from Donnie Darko. Your blood will run cold as you watch him dance a happy jig and pat a shivering blonde tyke on the top of her pony-tailed head. Saving Santa is no problem for the resourceful Bunny; he simply dumps the jolly old elf into his fire truck and leaves the sleigh behind. Santa (or someone) later uses magic to telekinetically transmit the sled back to the North Pole—making us wonder, what exactly was Kris Kringle’s dilemma in the first place?
Not weird enough for you? Well, how about the fact that Tom Sawyer (in a Hawaiian shirt) and Huck Finn (with a raccoon) also show up? They may be intended as symbolic stand-ins for the audience, because they seem totally nonplussed by the proceedings.
Ice Cream Bunny is less fun than it sounds. Every shot seems interminable; we watch people slowly walking through Pirates World, we watch the ICB slowly plow his way through the Everglades in his fire truck, we watch Santa slowly take off his belt and coat in the sweltering heat, then slowly put it all back on. The frequent musical numbers are horrifying; the children are incapable of singing the same note at the same time. To try to disguise this fact, kazoos make frequent appearances. Naturally, the sound quality is terrible; everything sounds tinny and distorted, lending a nightmarish edge to the songs. The voices in the wraparound segments are dubbed, and Santa ad-libs all his dialogue; obviously, given the number of flubbed lines and nonsensical comments, only one take was allowed. Visually, the movie manages to capture the look of a bad shot-on-video feature before there actually were shot-on-video features. The cinematography (if that’s what it is) makes beautiful south Florida looks about as appealing as a strip mall in south Philadelphia.
Even after watching it, you may believe Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is some sort of elaborate prank, or a home movie. Evidence from vintage posters suggests that the film really did play in theaters. We can only assume that the Santa footage was shot—with the acquiescence (if not the active assistance) of the owners and operators of Pirates World—with the intention of padding out the existing Thumbelina footage to feature length for a holiday matinee parents could drop their unsuspecting kids off at while they shopped for presents. We can only hope that it played for one week only, and only on one Florida screen. To think that adult survivors of 1972’s Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny are wandering among us today, panhandling in our streets and renting themselves out as gorilla labor, is a sad and frightening thought.
“R. Winer” never worked again (or if he did, he used a different pseudonym).
There is an alternative way to watch Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny which can turn the experience from “bah! humbug!” to “ho, ho, ho!” Rifftrax sells the DVD with a humorous running commentary track from “Mystery Science Theater” alums Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. Jokes are rapid-fire and often revolve around the decidedly un-jolly appearance of Old St. Nick and the ICB; at other points, simply hearing them rehash the narrative thus far is enough to send you into convulsions of laughter (in character as Santa, Nelson relates “and so the P.A. described how the witch continued to mince about for a while not speaking, just fiddling mostly, ho ho ho ho!”) At one point Murphy breaks out screaming at the appearance of scary Thumbelina insect puppets; at another, the movie seems to break him, and he begs, “have mercy, I’ll pull the sleigh, I’ll marry Mr. Digger, I’ll do whatever you want!” Amateurs have been mocking Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny for generations now. Imagine what professionals will do with this material. The movie is available to watch “riffed” or “unriffed,” and the DVD also includes a short feature (a Santa Claus meets Punch and Judy short from the 1950s).
Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny Rifftrax preview
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: