Ernest Goes to Camp (1987)
This review is part of a series in which the author watches all of the Ernest movies in order, even though some day he will die.
In this, his first full movie, Ernest gets crushed, beaten and lit on fire for an hour and a half while children laugh at him. It was foreshadowing for the film’s critical reception. Nobody expected the Ernest movie to be good, and it wasn’t. Everyone was therefore pretty surprised when it pulled in $23.5 million.
Ernest is a maintenance man at Kamp Kikakee, a summer kamp built on the grounds of a Native American initiation site for young warriors. He dreams of being an actual counselor, but is foiled by circumstance and his own ineptitude. The only people who hate Ernest more than the campers are the staff. All of the staff, that is, except Chief Saint Cloud, the wise old Native American who owns the land, and his hot/empathetic/implausibly single granddaughter.
The Chief is played by Iron Eyes Cody, famous as both the actor who portrayed the crying Indian in the infamous Keep America Beautiful ads and for being an 100% full-blooded Italian. In Goes to Camp, he speaks a special kind of sign language that only he, his granddaughter and Ernest understand. It mostly consists of grabbing his balls at women as they walk by.
Ernest is given a shot at counselorship when he’s put in charge of a band of juvenile delinquents the state is foisting upon the kamp. He drives a bus to pick them up from the child paddock where they’re held, and when the camera panned across them I did a literal, real-life, spit take.
To nobody’s surprise, the “Second Chancers” refuse to integrate into camp life. Instead they can be found doing badd kidd stuff like not giving even one flip about the rules, chewing bubble gum, and exposing their midriffs. Seriously, in every single scene where the whole group appears, one or more of them is wearing a cutoff shirt that shows their entire abdomen. Was that even a movie trope? Did kids back then rebel against their parents by dressing like gay prostitutes, and get away with it because it was the 80’s and no parties involved knew what gay prostitutes looked like yet?
Eventually, the junior ska band unites behind Ernest to save the camp when an evil mining company tries to demolish it. The conflict comes to a head when bulldozers have to be fought off with flaming arrows, parachuting turtles and a machine that shoots food. Chief Stromboli protects the defending forces by painting arbitrary lines on their faces and chanting the powerful ancient blessing, “Heyyy yaaa hoooooo, heyyyy yaaaaa hoooooo…”
As easy as it can be to get annoyed with the social justice culture war, it’s just as easy to lose sight of the fact that they had/have a lot of worthy targets in their crosshairs. There are many cringe-inducing gaffes in this movie, from Ernest bowing to gong sounds to the one black kid in camp being named Moustafa, not knowing how to swim, talking only in street jive, and doing elaborate high-fives with everyone. All of this would be more comfortable if it wasn’t happening at a place that’s one initial away from a “KKK” abbreviation.
The comedy in this movie can be divided into two categories: things falling onto Ernest, and Ernest falling off of things. If you want to play a drinking game, try “every time there is an object that doesn’t harm Ernest in some way, drink.” By the time the credits roll, you’ll still be good to drive. Ernest saves the day by harnessing Native magicks to make himself bulletproof, allowing him to take down the rifle-wielding evil mining CEO. Which is weird, considering that Ernest is invincible anyway.
On a hike with the badd kidds, Ernest tells them that he was in Vietnam. Implausible, since the military would never allow him to retire to civilian life. They could send him running ahead of the troops, soaking up every VC mortar round, spike trap and bayonet without consequence. I haven’t seen Ernest In the Army yet, but I assume he’s a superweapon who wears a necklace of human skulls.
I was surprised that I didn’t like Ernest Goes to Camp. Nobody, including Varney, acts with any of the spontaneous relish that they did in Gloombeam or the movies that followed it. To be fair, it was a freshman attempt, but there’s a lot missing. There’s no Rimshot the dog, zero Rube Goldberg machines, and Ernest even sings.
The bottom line is that while this movie is a time capsule, it’s a time capsule full of embarrassing mementos we’d probably be better off leaving in the ground. Expecting this movie to not be formulaic was a bit like expecting ladders to fall on Ernest in bullet time. But even by Ernest standards, it’s a meatless skeleton of a movie jangling around in the woods, doing a minstrel dance as the wind whistles through its midriff.