Today marks the 30th anniversary of the premiere of the Ernest movie Franchise with Ernest Goes to Camp. Considering I believe every medium to be fair game for a movie franchise, I can’t think of another that began with a commercial. I mean there was never a Dunkin; Donuts guy movie. The Geico cavemen got a TV show but Ernest made eight movies. So I took this month as an opportunity to revisit them, and an excuse to finally watch the five straight to video sequels I never had until now.
Ernest Goes to Camp
I didn’t have much recollection of Ernest Goes to Camp. I remember going to see it because the idea of the “Know what I mean, Vern” guy having his own movie made perfect sense to nine-year-old Franchise Fred in 1987. I remember him singing “Gee I’m Glad It’s Raining” and being sad because I didn’t yet understand that act two always appears defeated before the hero ultimately triumphs. I have stronger recollections of Ernest Goes to Camp as a punchline in a Weird Al song, so it was really a fresh revisit for me.
I certainly forgot it’s a 2.35 widescreen cinematic epic! The rest went 1.85, probably considering their ultimate legacy as VHS rentals. The Lindbergh Baby and Josef Mengele are pretty highbrow punchlines for a kids movie. Those must’ve been for the parents.
The basic story of believing in a group of “bad” kids is endearing. Already eight years after Meatballs, a new generation of kids deserved someone to believe in them too. Ernest’s pratfalls are sound but his desire to be a camp counselor is sincere. Though played as his hard earned redemption, you can see that a man as accident prone as Ernest would not be a responsible guardian for real campers. Varney is really great with the kids though and he’ll continue to be throughout the series.
The anti-development subplot and defense of Native American grounds is as poignant as ever. If only people listened to Ernest, we could’ve averted the whole DAPL incident.
Ernest Saves Christmas
I remember Ernest Saves Christmas the most. Pairing Ernest with Santa (Douglas Seale) made a memorable Christmas movie, and the visit to Vern’s house (you still never see him) was the payoff Franchise Fred had been waiting for.
It’s interesting when a franchise makes a Christmas movie. Often it becomes a perennial like Christmas Vacation but then it becomes fixed in November-December viewing. It didn’t feel too weird watching Ernest Saves Christmas in May. I’m going back 30 years, what’s a few months?
Now Ernest is a taxi driver. There’s more vehicular stunts in the vein of Smokey and the Bandit or The Blues Brothers. Ernest still finds ways to harm himself comically in the kitchen. He does a lot more disguises this time including a clean cut persona, a snake wrangler (guess where this is going) and Auntie Nelda.
It’s an endearing Christmas story about kind people trying to stay kind in a cynical world. Santa Claus has tapped Joe (Oliver Clark) to replace him but Joe is tempted by Hollywood.
Imagine how much of this wouldn’t fly post 9/11. The customs officer let’s a Santa Claus passport go because the line is so long. The racial stereotypes in line would be portrayed exactly the same in 2017, however.
I did not remember Gailard Sartain and Bill Byre as recurring characters. They were camp chefs in Camp. Now they’re baggage clerks dealing with reindeer and Sartain only appears once more.
There’s a surprisingly progressive feminist angle that could’ve been developed more. Santa made a mistake once and brought Harmony (Noelle Parker) a doll when she wanted a baseball mitt. He should’ve respected her personal taste even if it didn’t conform to gender norms of the ’80s. Her arc is more to learn to trust others and not be such a loner though.
Ernest Goes to Jail
I do remember Ernest Goes to Jail having his evil doppelgänger, and being the most acclaimed of the Ernest films. This must be where it really became an auteur franchise because it opens with the credit “a John Cherry film” before the animated titles even begin, before Varney’s name is even on screen.
Ernest is now a janitor at a bank where Chuck (Sartain) and Bobby (Byre) are security guards. Vern’s only reference is on a bubble bath label.
Ernest always has a dream and getting into finance seems a bit ‘80s for the 1990 entry but also accounts for the film going a tad higher brow. Or does he just aspire to being a clerk? He’s genuinely happy to be chosen for jury duty. I guess if you botch every job you’ve ever had, you would be thrilled for a job you pretty much cannot fail out of.
He also gets magnetized because of course he does. It’s begins with a pretty inventive sequence full of practical slapstick and climaxes with explosive old school optical effects. Pratfalls with the floor waxer and chewing on an ink pen are among the series greatest bits.
Nash is the ruler of the cell block. He’s introduced dramatically off camera until the reveal that he’s also played by Varney. They take prison seriously for a PG movie. It’s not the kiddie movie version. I don’t know about the guards’ pink jackets but it’s a dangerous place. In a prison murder trial, the defendant orchestrates a jury trip to the scene of the crime so Nash can switch places with Ernest.
He also does Auntie Nelda again, and the finale is totally The Avengers. By far the shortest Ernest movie (81 minutes means barely 77 when credits roll), it is the leanest and most comically precise.
Ernest Scared Stupid
Ernest Scared Stupid explains that a troll curse on the Worrell family made each generation dumber. I don’t know if I appreciate this midichlorions approach to Ernest but it’s just a throwaway line. However the 4th grade backstory truly enriches the character of Ernest.
Now a sanitation engineer (right when garbage men were rebranded as such), Ernest still mentors a gang of picked on kids. You can tell Varney really enjoys being an entertainer of children. Ernest picks a haunted tree to build them a treehouse and awakens the long dormant troll underneath.
The troll is scary enough to work on kids with practical animatronics and it turns kids to wooden dolls. This one really emphasizes the gross outs with lots of Ernest’s “ewwwwwwwwwww”s. There’s a montage with all of Varney’s characters and impressively gets a reaction shot from all of them to a single incident. Bobby is back but now has a younger brother huckster.
Since this is Ernest’s spooky Halloween movie, it’s got a bit more focus on mild scares and monster mythology. It works a tad less as a pure Ernest movie but since each of his films is a different subgenre, it works as the kid-friendly horror movie.
Ernest Rides Again
The beginning of the straight to video era, Ernest Rides Again technically opened a few theaters. They last five are all on Amazon Prime if you’re looking for them. This one opens with a Mr Bill short.
This time Ernest is providing encouragement to a grown up professor instead of children. It’s not quite as endearing but the spirit of believing in the underdog is still there. It also means Ernest destroys priceless historical artifacts instead of just expensive modern equipment. But he’s helping Abner Miller (Ron K. James) find a cannon with the Crown Jewels inside.
It’s a lot in the woods and caves so that keeps the budget down. It’s still got the energy of high slapstick. Pratfalls on a construction site and moving vehicles are still well done. That rolling scene is relentless! That’s why it’s called Ernest Rides Again. He rides a rolling cannon for about 30 minutes straight.
He still does Auntie Nelda. Two salesmen fill the Bobby and Chuck roles. At the end it’s got a commercial for Ernest Goes To School. The only precedent for that at the time could’ve been Back to the Future II.
I really liked this one. It made me excited to watch the last four, and for the most part I was pleased.
Ernest Goes to School
Ernest Goes to School is the only Ernest film not directed by John cherry. If they were shot back to back maybe he didn’t have time to prep both and shoot School while in post on Rides. Coke Sams knows the angles to film Ernest shenanigans so it has continuity with the franchise.
Signs of budget cuts begin with the video titles like a ‘90s TV show would have. Are film titles really so much more expensive that they forego them for straight to video films? A sped up sequence is clearly video and not undercranked film.
There are still some clever visuals like a two dimensional Ernest and the hallway cowboy. Slapstick scenes haven’t been compromised, as evidenced by an elaborate bathroom leak. Varney does a fire stunt. He’s a slapstick badass.
His job as a maintenance man is more in line with the Ernest commercials than driving a cab or working in a bank. By the time Ernest is fighting for yet another job, it’s a bit flimsy that working at a high school is his heartfelt passion when working at camp or in a bank were too, but Varney sells the sincerity.
Ernest in high school predates Billy Madison but it’s a different sort of comedy. A science experiment makes Ernest smart so this is Flowers for Ernest! It makes him a great athlete and musician too, but it also makes him an A-hole. Ignorance is bliss indeed. Of course like Flowers for Algernon, he loses the artificial smarts.
Bobby shows up again in Ernest Goes to School and he has a few lines, some in German. Pairing him with a female scientist makes a strong duo.
Slam Dunk Ernest
The Ernest movies begin trading in unfortunate racial stereotypes for the last three movies. Slam Dunk Ernest is heavy on the black/white stuff. Remember in the ’90s white men couldn’t jump. Ernest takes it in stride and his black colleagues respect his standup ethics. He’s a janitor again at a mall, part of a cleaning crew. Not sure making an all black cleaning crew was appropriate either.
There are still some great pratfalls. Ernest finds things to do at court side. Of course there’s not a big crowd. They don’t need to spend on extras when the comedy is on the court. Actually, they do have a crowd at the end when it’s the big game. Ernest doesn’t need a big budget to be entertaining. He’s the show. Hell he made commercials so good they made movies about him. Stock footage of fire trucks is glaring when it’s old film and the rest of the movie is mastered for ’90s video.
It still has the endearing quality of Ernest just wants to be part of the gang. He’s doing it to have friends, not for self advancement. He still gets magic shoes though. Varney does great physical comedy as the shoes control him. The self tying shoes look like a good practical effect.
The story is basically with great power comes great responsibility. The magic shoes make it hard to teach kids to work hard when it can be that easy. And fame tempts Ernest. It’s a good message to address those evils in a soft, endearing way. Stay true to yourself, kids.
Ernest Goes to Africa
Ernest Goes to Africa now looks like it was shot on video. They did go all the way to Africa though so the locations have high production value, but at this point they’re struggling to maintain Ernest. Slapstick scenes have a lot more closeups and minimal practical effects but they still convey the Ernest shenanigans.
Some of them go too dark, venturing into animal cruelty. Even when it’s an unintentional mishap, that’s not Ernest. He’ll injure himself, not others. He has a LEGO phone tho. That’s cool.
Ernest really wants to date Rene (Linda Kash, from Goes to School and Rides Again) and that seems un-Ernesty. He’s not a horndog. He’d be the one oblivious to a woman’s interest in him until the end. The villains are a bit too extreme too with kidnapping Rene and interrogating her on an improvised torture rack.
One of Ernest’s alter egos is in brown face. That was an insensitive choice. His greetings to Africans are also racist slang stereotypes. He’s supposed to be an idiot but not insensitive. Another white guy plays a swami although they don’t paint him brown. Auntie Nelda is still funny. I’m not sure about Ernest as a harem girl. There are so many other things, maybe I let that one pass for sheer ridiculousness. He’s got a lot of Ewwwwwwwwwws in the African wilderness.
Varney’s voice is starting to sound strained here. Perhaps this is when his lung cancer started getting aggressive. He still gives his all to expressions and physical comedy.
Ernest In The Army
Ernest in the Army is a step up from Ernest Goes to Africa, so at least the franchise doesn’t end on an unpleasant note. The Arab stereotypes are cartoonishly racist but typical of ’90s movie villains.
Now Ernest is a groundskeeper at an Army base golf course. He’s convinced to enlist in the Reserves. Training gives Ernest plenty of opportunities to bumble around, and he’s assigned to KP. Super heavy pancakes are actually a really clever set piece. Then he goes on a rescue mission and gets in more trouble. Though small scale, there are clever set pieces with a tent and a mine field.
He’s still a little smitten by reporter Cindy Swanson (Hayley Tyson) but it’s fortunately more of a bumbling “can’t keep his composure” than the lecherousness he displayed in Goes to Africa. Maybe there was a studio note in the ‘90s that Ernest needed to be more of a ladies man.
I’m happy that even three of the straight to video sequels were still good. I liked Rides Again, Goes to School School and Slam Dunk more than Scared Stupid. There was really only one dud out of nine so that’s a pretty strong franchise.
I suppose after all this, people would want to know how I rank the entire series so here goes:
1. Ernest Goes to Jail
2. Ernest Goes to Camp
3. Ernest Saves Christmas
4. Ernest Rides Again
5. Ernest Goes to School
6. Slam Dunk Ernest
7. Ernest Scared Stupid
8. Ernest In The Army
9. Ernest Goes to Africa
Ernest was a really endearing character who stuck up for the little guys and especially taught children to do the right thing. Had Varney lived I’m sure they would still be making Ernest movies today, including the gritty reboot that cast Russell Crowe as Vern.