Ah, Ernest, the movies were silly, goofy and fun. They could be fall-down funny, but they could also be obnoxious. People love them or they hate them. But today, I'm going to rank them all from worst to best.
Now Ernest appeared in A LOT of projects so I'm only counting feature films (so no Splash Mountain) where he was the lead (so no Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam).
Ernest Goes to Africa
I did not have to think too long about what the worst Ernest movie was. For starters, there is room for an argument that Ernest was not actually a full-blown dullard but more of an idiot savant. This is one of the films where he feels like a straight up buffoon. His intro scene sees him destroy someone else’s car in what was blatantly his fault. That sort of thing could be forgivable, but the humor in this film is just off. The Ernest movies worked because they specialized in wacky but kid-friendly humor. This film goes for a lot more bawdy, gross-out humor. There are theories on why. It feels like they tried to have their cake and eat it too, but the humor just didn’t click.
Also Ernest wears black face in this movie. I know as a written article, that be re-read, but I feel like this bears repeating: ERNEST WEARS BLACKFACE. Okay, it’s Indian face but still. Maybe some people will like the adventure aspect of this film, but I only recommend this if you’re a completionist who must see every Ernest film.
Ernest in the Army
The final Ernest movie was tragically one of the weak links in the series. I ranked it higher because it WAS a marginal improvement over Africa. There were a handful of jokes that made me laugh, but not enough to justify this film. Ernest is a little more fleshed out as a character – his story about why he joins the Army Reserves is decent character development (decent by the standards of direct-to-video Ernest films). It is sad to think of this as Jim Varney’s final performance as Ernest. But one of the few highlights is a decent ending. Sadly, there’s also a lot more wrong with this film – By film NINE, the humor was getting pretty forced. While this is an improvement from Africa, I still give it a similar recommendation.
Ernest Rides Again
This was the first film away from Disney, and the only Ernest movie that doesn’t announce its premise directly in the title. In short, everything about this movie was just the filmmakers reminding fans that the Ernest films weren’t over. It’s also noteworthy as the hardest to locate movie, with a standalone DVD being an out of print collector’s item. The only way to get a DVD is through compilation sets.
If this is the “forgotten” Ernest movie, a lot of that is because this movie is so forgettable. It’s not as bad as Africa and not nearly as good as the Disney films. The movie has an interesting premise with Ernest having a friend who’s a college professor who believes the crown jewels were hidden in a huge cannon. This movie had the potential to be funny, but for the kind of film they were going for, the pacing is far too slow. There are also a lot of jokes that don’t work. There’s a duo of salesman characters that undoubtedly would have been funnier if Chuck and Bobby played the roles (or some variation of the duo). Some jokes do work, but the only real highlight is the opening credits. “A Man Named Worrell” promises way more fun and adventure than this snoozefest delivers.
Slam Dunk Ernest
Ernest is wannabe basketball player who gets magical shoes that make him good. However he’s also used as a pawn between good and evil over a young boy. Giving credit where it’s due, that’s more plot than I’d expect from a direct-to-video Ernest movie. Not only does the plot show effort, but the magic shoes lead to some great visual gags. Plus the supporting cast is filled with a few memorable characters.
While this is one of the better post-Disney film, its cheapness holds it back. Straight from the opening title that looks like it was done in MS Paint, the cards are on the table that this was a cheap one. They somehow got the NBA involved and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, but there seemed to be a certain spark missing from these movies. A lot of the people that worked on them went away with Disney. The comedic, zany energy seemed to be replaced by Ernest mugging A LOT more. Warts and all, some really funny jokes, memorable characters, and a decent premise make this worth checking out. Don’t go too far out of your way to see it, but if you’re the kind of person who likes the Disney movies and wishes there were more, check this one out.
Ernest Goes to School
If there was one movie that actually came close to being as good as the Disney movies, this is it. In addition to plenty of funny one-liners, this movie has a plethora of visual gags/scenes – there’s a B-plot about them trying to win a football game which leads to some funny stuff (such as the Cupid play), there’s a sweet scene where Ernest imagines himself dancing with a band leader he has a crush on. While not perfect, some of the side characters are entertaining enough (including before they were famous performances by Will Sasso and Sarah Chalke) – especially since this is the last movie to feature Bobby.
As much as I enjoyed Goes to School, it comes with a warning. For the amount of jokes that do work, I’d still say there are more that miss than in the Disney movies. Plus, there are a handful of jokes that are funny at first, but last just a second or two too long. Also, this film feels like an explosion at the script factory. In Ernest movies, it was fair to expect the plot to simply be a clothesline to hang the jokes on, but this move kind of zig zags between plots. Case in point, there’s a scene where Ernest tries his hand at wrestling. It’s funny, but it has little to do with anything else in the movie. I feel like that’s an allegory for the movie: Don’t pay attention the plot, but it will make you laugh.
Ernest Scared Stupid
While this is a fun film, it comes with caveats. The kids are kind of obnoxious in this one – not enough to bring down the entire film though. Ernest’s impressions in this film felt somewhat crowbarred in. The fat funnyman has his moments, but he’s no Chuck. Also, what’s up with the look of this movie? Everything looks like it was sped up.
Having said that, there are reasons, I like this movie so much. Even if there are a few clunkers, most of the jokes do hit. Scared Stupid has two of the absolute funniest moments in any Ernest movie: The Miak scene and the fourth grade teacher scene. The scenes where Ernest and the kids battle the troll are fun. The troll costumes/effects look amazing – especially for a movie (probably) made on a shoestring budget. Eartha Kitt is amazing in her role as a local hermit who is very much the keeper of the legend. Also, this movie is fun for Halloween. For non-Ernest fans, this one is similar to something like Hocus Pocus.
Ernest Goes to Camp
Being the first film in the series, the filmmakers were trying things out. It is slightly slower paced than the films that would follow, a lot of the action is surprisingly plausible, parts of the movie are a little too serious for a silly, goofball comedy (particularly the scenes with the Krader Mining Company). But even having said that, this movie does work overall. The funny parts are funny – such as the cafeteria scene, the badger scene and any scene with the chefs. The kids are likable in that 80’s five token band kind of way, and Camp is kind of fun as a time capsule of the 80’s. Besides, as much as I enjoy the other Ernest movies, they could also be a little loud and dare I say obnoxious at times. So it doesn’t bother me that this film is a little slower and quieter than the other films.
Amazingly, some of the serious moments do work. The scene where Ernest gets beaten up is surprisingly rough. In fact, the best part of the movie isn’t even one of the funny parts. Hands down the highlight of Ernest Goes to Camp is the song number “Gee I’m Glad It’s Raining.” It’s a legitimately heart-breaking song.
Ernest Saves Christmas
I feel weird ranking this over some of the Ernest movies simply because it’s not AS funny as the other films. I emphasize “AS” funny because this movie still has a lot of funny moments. Okay, there were still are a lot of funny moments in this one, but still. So what makes this film work? This movie’s Santa Claus. He is so sweet, so kind, obviously loves what he’s doing. According to legend, Ernest Saves Christmas was written as another project before Disney decided to put Ernest in. While the addition is not obtrusive, it is easy to tell since this is the only time Ernest feels like a supporting character in his own film. Santa is easily the scene-stealer. The man has so many good scenes, such as when he gets a group of jail birds to sing Christmas Carols, his speech about why he doesn’t continue being Santa is a wonderful scene, and he has relationship with an older librarian that is simply darling.
To people who have some prejudice against Ernest films, I highly recommend getting over that, just to see this Santa Claus. I fear that bias may lead people to ignore a Santa that ranks up with Edmund Gwen or Tim Allen. Saves Christmas has an overall sweet tone that make it a great Christmas movie. The only thing that might be a turnoff is this movie shows its age… a lot. The character Harmony Star – while likable enough – definitely reeks of something that would come out of a late 80’s kids movie. So one’s tolerance for kid-friendly 80’s movies will be a big factor.
Ernest Goes to Jail
Ernest Saves Christmas may technically be the best film because of the Santa Claus and its overall sweetness. However, for a film that just delivers non-stop jokes, Ernest Goes to Jail delivers. There were certain things the filmmakers always tried to do in every movie. Trying to escape or fit into jail gave the filmmakers a good reason to do these: It gave Jim Varney a chance to do his characters including trying to escape as Auntie Nelda in a funny scene. There all kinds of funny, Looney Tunes-esque gags as Ernest tries to get out of jail (my favorite being the gun joke), and Ernest has a great monologue when he’s on death-row.
The filmmakers went all the way crazy with this one. Ernest has magnetism, Ernest flies, and his floor waxer develops a mind of its own. Why do ANY of these things happen? Who knows? But they’re funny. Chuck and Bobby are at their funniest as a duo of gung ho security guards. Jim Varney has dual roles as Ernest and Nash – AKA evil Ernest. The special effects in this film are hit and miss. Some of the full body shots of Ernest flying (seriously, don’t ask – see the movie to figure out that one) look awful, while some of the shots of Jim Varney fighting himself look great. Any time we don’t have to see Jim Varney’s full body still look good too.
Alex deCourville (author) on August 28, 2017:
They're pretty funny, but I think you have to be in the right mindset to appreciate them. Accept that you're gonna see some screwball, Three Stooges-style screwball comedy and not high art, and you might like them.
Rachael Lefler from Illinois on August 25, 2017:
I haven't seen any of these, I remember them being in video stores when I was a kid, back when video stores were more popular. I think my mom really liked "Ernest goes to Jail" too.