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Ranking The Ernest Movies From Worst To Best

Hercules. Achilles. Sherlock Holmes. Aragorn. Perseus. Aslan. Among the greatest heroes of popular fiction and myth, one name stands above all others — Ernest P. Worrell. Okay, so Ernest may not have the strength, grace, and intelligence of these other characters — or even the basic common sense of a semi-functional human being — but we'd put Ernest's heart up against any of them. While the others are heroes to look up to, Ernest is a hero to look down on, which in a weird way is kinda what we need. Because despite Ernest's numerous intellectual deficiencies, you can always count on him — whether it's going to camp, fighting child-eating trolls, saving Christmas from greedy corporate raiders, or encouraging his unseen pal, Vern, to make the Mello Yello move. Know what we mean?

Whatever the mission, no matter how dire, Ernest is there (even if things would probably be easier if he stayed on the sideline). So, when asking what are the best of Ernest's big-screen epics, the answer is simply "all of them." Okay, so maybe the Ernest movies aren't cinematic masterpieces or even "good" in the literal sense, but they still hold a special place in the hearts of millions of fans. And using Rotten Tomatoes as our guide — though we'll be adding our own commentary if we disagree with the critics' score — we're ranking these movies on a pretty generous curve. Which Ernest movies are the best, and which are the worst? Well, here's the definitive ranking of Ernest movies according to Rotten Tomatoes!

Real quick, here's how the legend was born

How did Ernest come to be? Popular characters have made the leap to the big screen from stand-up (Larry the Cable Guy), SNL skits (too many to mention), and plays (Tyler Perry's Madea). Ernest may be the only example of a movie character coming from commercials. Take that Mr. Clean and Geico Gecko! 

According to Entertainment Weeklythe legend started in 1980, when John R. Cherry III of Carden & Cherry Advertising Agency represented an amusement park so dilapidated that it couldn't be shown in ads. The solution? Have a make-believe visitor recommend it. That visitor? Ernest P. Worrell. They found their Ernest in Jim Varney, a Shakespearean-trained actor who'd been on Johnny Cash and Friends in the 1970s and toured as a stand-up comic. 

Cherry started having Ernest appear in other regional TV commercials, hocking everything from ice cream to hamburgers to trucks. The results were decisive. One truck dealership even reported a 50% increase in sales, all thanks to Ernest. Varney's schedule was intense, shooting a record 26 commercials in one day. The setup was always the same — a wide-angle shot of Ernest telling his unseen frenemy, Vern, about whatever product he was selling. The character was so popular that Disney came calling, releasing Ernest Goes to Camp in 1987 under its Touchstone banner to the tune of $24 million. Despite the failure of the 1988 kid's show Hey Vern, It's Earnest! (which won Varney an Emmy), the character was a hit, and a movie series was born.

Ernest Goes to Africa aged poorly ... really poorly

Jim Varney's second-to-last Ernest movie is his worst according to Rotten Tomatoes — Ernest Goes to Africa. And with a title like that, you can probably guess it's going to be ... problematic. Sure, the movie's stereotypical depiction of African tribal culture or Ernest getting in brown-face to impersonate an Indian aren't any worse than what other films from the 1990s were doing, such as Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Though to be honest, it's probably a waste of time to be truly offended by a movie this across-the-board abysmal. While the early Ernest films had a playful, childlike charm, Ernest Goes to Africa is just a series of puerile jokes poorly stitched together in something resembling a story. 

Our favorite doofus tries to impress his crush by giving her jewels from a flea market, but it turns out these jewels are actually valuable stones taken from an African statue. Ernest is kidnapped and taken to Africa, where he must rescue both the jewels and the girl of his dreams. So Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ... but in Africa with Ernest? The 1997 movie was so unimpressive that it doesn't even have an official critic's score, though one of the two critics who reviewed it said it was "one of the worst movies [he'd] ever seen." Not a lot to unpack there. Its audience score is 29% and while we've seen worse, that's low enough to make Ernest Goes to Africa the worst Ernest movie.

Ernest Goes to School gets an 'F'

In Jim Varney's sixth Ernest film, Ernest does what he probably should've done all along — go to school. You may think Ernest Goes to School was a quick-and-dirty, straight-to-video ripoff of Billy Madison, but it actually came out the year before in 1994. So maybe Adam Sandler owes his career to Jim Varney? Yeah, probably not.

High school janitor Ernest risks losing his job when a new rule states all workers must be high school graduates. Dropout Ernest has to take the 12th grade, but his struggles are so monumental that his teachers subject him to scientific experiments that turn him into a genius. They might want to patent that. Alas, this turns the lovable lunkhead into a huge jerk, and if there's one thing Ernest is not, it's mean. Ernest Goes to School has no critics reviews, but it received an "F" from audiences, with a score of 37%. By this point, the Ernest franchise had nothing left but "let's put Ernest in X situation," and it shows. That said, we'd still rather watch this than Billy Madison.

Ernest's big-screen debut was in Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam

Before Eddie Murphy played the Klumps, Jim Varney played five characters in his debut starring role with Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam. While he was already nationally famous for his role as Ernest P. Worrell (aka "that stupid guy from all those commercials"), Ernest only plays a supporting role in his first film, which is actually focused on the titular Dr. Otto Von Schnick-ick-ick-ick and his quest for world domination. 

In the 1986 film, Varney plays Dr. Otto, a mad genius with a hand growing out of his head and who dresses like a cross between Gene Simmons and Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Plus, Varney also plays Rudd Hardtact, Laughin' Jack, Guy Dandy, Auntie Nelda, and of course, Ernest, all while managing to make each character distinct. It's an impressive feat, but critics and moviegoers weren't impressed with the finished film. Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam has zero critic's reviews — not 0%, but zero critics bothered to review it. Meanwhile, its audience score is a mediocre 40%, mostly just from passionate Varney fans. It was an inauspicious, albeit minor debut, from Ernest, who would go on to bigger, better, and campier things.

Ernest Goes to Jail didn't break out with critics

By 1990, Ernest had gone to camp and saved Christmas, so the "Ernest Goes to Wherever" formula was established. That said, his third film is hardly formulaic, predictable, or (as usual with this series) plausible. Ernest is a bank janitor who's called for jury duty, but as fate would have it, he looks exactly like the defendant, a murderer named Felix Nash (also played by Jim Varney). Ernest and Nash switch places, and Ernest finds himself on death row while Nash works at Ernest's bank, planning to rob it. 

Ernest eventually saves the day by ... getting electrocuted and developing Magneto-like powers of magnetism. Well, points for originality, we guess. The mistaken identities trope is a clever setup, as we know Ernest would never do anything to wind up in jail on his own, and it also gives Varney the opportunity to show his range and play against type as a villain. Oh, he also plays his oft-appearing Auntie Nelda, nine years before Tyler Perry suited up as Madea. Critics weren't impressed, giving Ernest Goes to Jail a 13% score, with one critic saying, "Here's one fictitious Ernest sequel that fits my sentiments exactly: 'Ernest Gets on my Last Nerve.'" Booo! Moviegoers were more kind, giving the flick a 48% score. That's more like it.

Ernest Rides Again is a wild ride

Ernest's fifth adventure definitely had the most non-committal, boring title — Ernest Rides Again. C'mon, we expect that lack of originality from mainstream Hollywood studios (with its bevy of Returns, Rises, and of course, just adding numbers), but we expect more creativity from Ernest. They might as well have called it Ernest V. Perhaps the tepid title was because Ernest Rides Again was the first Ernest movie not released under Disney's Touchstone banner. It was independently financed, and it was the last Ernest movie to be released theatrically. 

The setup is intriguing. Ernest is a university janitor, and he stumbles on an antique plate that may lead to the real Crown Jewels of England. Oh, he also gets a king's crown stuck on his head. Ernest and the university's history professor race against Scotland Yard and the mob to find the plates first. Now, see, that's a pretty cool plot, right? Released in 1993, Ernest Rides Again came out ten years before The Da Vinci Code book and 11 years before National Treasure, but it has a plot similar to both. The Ernest P. Worrell Code? Ernest Saves the Holy Grail? Alas, Ernest Rides Again is middle-of-the-road Ernest, with a score that reflects that — 14% from critics and 43% from moviegoers. Whatever, we dig it, though they should've called it Ernest Saves the Crown.

Ernest in the Army ended the series by going AWOL

Released in 1998, Ernest in the Army was the ninth and final Ernest movie, at least starring Jim Varney, and nobody else should ever play Ernest. It's odd that it would take nine films and 11 years before Ernest would wind up in the Army, as that seems like the simplest setup in cinema. After all, after Bill Murray went to camp in Meatballs, he went to the Army in Stripes soon after, so why didn't Ernest follow suit? Anyway, Ernest's military escapades finally happened, and the results are about what you'd expect for an Ernest movie in the late 1990s. 

When a Persian Gulf dictator invades a smaller neighboring country (sound familiar?), Ernest P. Worrell joins the fight. Hilarity ensues, with Ernest going overseas, wreaking havoc, befriending a lost boy, and saving the day. Ernest in the Army got a "better" score from critics (relatively speaking) at 17%, but audiences were less impressed, giving it 32%. In any event, Ernest in the Army was a disappointing swan song for our favorite lovable doofus.

Ernest Scared Stupid is essential Halloween viewing

Despite its 30% critic's score, the 1993 Bette Midler bomb Hocus Pocus is now essential Halloween viewing for millions thanks to home video and repeat viewings on the Disney Channel (and now Disney+). But if you're looking for real essential Halloween viewing, it's the 1991 classic Ernest Scared Stupid

In the flick, Ernest is a garbage collector in a small Missouri town who accidentally unleashes an evil troll that's been imprisoned under a tree for 200 years. It's now up to Ernest, a kooky old witch (played by Eartha Kitt), and a group of kids to stop the troll from turning all of the town's children into wooden dolls and creating an army of trolls by taking the kids' life force. 

It's pretty intense for an Ernest movie, which is probably why Ernest Scared Stupid was the lowest-grossing of the series. You have to be under seven to appreciate the humor, but over seven to handle the scares. Not a good combo. Ernest Scared Stupid's disappointing box office caused Disney (under its Touchstone banner) to get out of the Ernest business. Rotten Tomatoes tells the tale, though, for while the critic's score is 17%, the audience score is 50%, one of the highest in the series. We side with the moviegoers on this. Simply put, Ernest Scared Stupid is essential Ernest, and it deserves to be essential Halloween viewing.

Slam Dunk Ernest makes the cut ... barely

Ernest's first entry into the sports comedy bracket was his seventh film, 1995's Slam Dunk Ernest. Now, while nobody would say that all professional athletes are smart, they are at least, y'know, athletic. Ernest is neither, so he's forced to sit on the sidelines while his hoop dreams sink like an airball. That is until the Archangel of Basketball, played by real-life all-time great Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, grants him a pair of magic sneakers that give him some major ups. The sneakers come with a warning to only use them wisely. Ernest ... use something wisely? 

Naturally, hilarity ensues as Ernest gets carried away with his powers. Slam Dunk Ernest came out one year before Space Jam, though we wouldn't dare say the former is a better film or the latter was a rip-off because that's wrong, and we don't want to start a flame war. We will say Slam Dunk Ernest is  the best of the post-Touchstone, straight-to-video Ernest movies, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes. The Rotten Tomatoes critic's score was on the high end for Ernest movies (20%) while the audience score was on the low end (31%). Let's call it a tie, and say Slam Dunk Ernest is a solid, if not spectacular, Ernest movie.

Ernest Saves Christmas delivers holiday cheer

Ernest followed up the surprise success of Ernest Goes to Camp with Ernest Saves Christmas. Talk about a promotion, from just going to camp to saving Christmas. Turns out, Mr. Worrell was up to the job. Santa Claus is looking to retire and has found his successor in a children's show host, so he enlists cab driver Ernest to help him out. But when St. Nick finds himself in unexpected trouble, it's up to Ernest to, well, save Christmas. 

While considered a Christmas movie classic by the millions of Millennials who saw the 1988 film as children, the critics' assessment is best summed up by Time's Richard Corliss, who said it was "only marginally insufferable." Well, at least it's only marginal. Even though the critics weren't very merry and bright about Ernest Saves Christmas, its 36% critic's score is still one of the best in the series, while its moviegoer's score is a super solid (for Ernest) 42%. Ernest could save Christmas, but he couldn't save his second adventure from another rotten score. Still, we've got to give it major points for having one of Hollywood's best portrayals of Santa Claus.

Ernest Goes to Camp is a campy classic

Here's the film that started it all. If you've only seen one Ernest movie or can remember the title for only one Ernest movie, it's probably Ernest Goes to Camp. Jim Varney and Ernest creator/director John R. Cherry III did what basically nobody had ever done before and convinced a major movie studio (Disney under their Touchstone banner) to make a movie based on a TV commercial character. The result was 1987's Ernest Goes to Camp. Ernest Goes to Camp has become its own punchline, but it's actually a pretty solid comedy and not just for Ernest fans. 

This isn't just us being shameless Ernest fanboys (okay, maybe a little), but Rotten Tomatoes backs us up, with a critic's score of 62%. You read that correctly — the critic's score is actually Fresh! For an Ernest movie! Not only that, it's higher than the moviegoer's score of 51%, which is actually the highest audience score of the series. So, critics liked an Ernest movie more than moviegoers. We're not saying Ernest Goes to Camp is a masterpiece. We're not saying it's a comedy classic. We're just saying that when the dust settles, and the votes are tallied, Ernest Goes to Camp is definitely the best Ernest movie.

The Ernest movies we never saw

Jim Varney tragically died of lung cancer at age 50 in 2000. There were nine Ernest movies, ten if you count his bit part in Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam, but there could've been more. According to a 1990 Entertainment Weekly article, there were a ton of concepts in development following the success of Ernest Goes to Camp and Ernest Saves Christmas. Ernest P. Worrell's would-be adventures included Ernest Spaced Out, Ernest and the Water Baby (which was described as Ernest meets E.T.), Ernest Scared Stupid (which was originally about Ernest inheriting a haunted house from his ancestors), and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse

According to Varney collaborator Coke Sams, Ernest and the Voodoo Curse was "like the idiot version of Raiders of the Lost Ark." He went on to add, "We had lines of zombies, Voodoo potions, and Ernest pretending to be a zombie." Uh, okay we'd have been down. Sadly, none of these adventures will come to pass, at least not with Varney. And without Varney, it just wouldn't be Ernest. While Varney's acting career included major Hollywood productions, such as Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies and Slinky Dog in Toy Story, he will always be remembered as Ernest. Know what we mean?