Review: Camp Cretaceous

The Jurassic Park movies have always sorta-kinda been family adventure films. Yes, there are many deaths, some graphically depicted, and there are plenty of frights, but they’re never particularly gory or horrifying films. There have always been some kids swathed in plot armor to accompany the protagonists. And kids naturally love and are fascinated by dinosaurs, even the theme-park monsters of the films, which once upon a time were overall rather accurate and remain strikingly realistic in action. I remember watching Jurassic Park around age 5 or 6, too young for the movie, absolutely enchanted by the glimpses of dinosaurs and thrilled by the adventure story and so scared of the kitchen scene I couldn’t even watch it the first time or two.

All that to say, it makes sense, from a certain point of view, to make a children’s show version of Jurassic Park. It certainly makes sense from a merchandising perspective, and I knew more about the toy line than the show’s premise up until a week or two before its release. But it also limits what the show can be about. If nothing else, the show must be more toned down, more tame, than any of the movies. Sure enough, a few anonymous or unlikable adults meet their ends more-or-less off-screen, and the kids (and even sympathetic adults) preserve the plot armor that always surrounds kids in these stories–at least until the final couple episodes, when the show genuinely manages to raise the stakes and suggest that the protagonists might not all make it through.

Camp Cretaceous is focused largely on tracking the developing relationships between the disparate kids who win a trip to the eponymous summer camp and then must somehow survive it. These kids initially come off as tired stereotypes: the dino nerd, the spoiled rich kid, the popular girl (upgraded to the current era as a social media influencer), the jock, the goofball extrovert, and the neurotic coward. The stereotypes are more or less played straight for the first couple episodes, but over the course of the show, all the characters gain nuance and depth, and they all reveal secret strengths and weaknesses. They are pushed past the breaking point as they attempt to survive, and they sometimes come close to fracturing but manage to stand together. By the end of the show, I liked all the characters.

I also really liked Bumpy, the sidekick Ankylosaurus infant who becomes a constant companion to the children as everything goes to hell. Bumpy has an adorable design. As much as Bumpy is designed to sell toys, she still had a big impact on me. I was constantly cheering on or worrying about Bumpy, even though I knew there was no way the show’s creators would ever let anything bad happen to her. Bumpy really steals the show.

The show’s premise remains pretty basic and in line with the first four Jurassic Park films: people go to an island with genetically engineered dinosaurs, bad things happen, and they must try to escape with their lives. In some ways, it’s a disappointing step back toward the formulaic just as Fallen Kingdom and Battle at Big Rock opened the franchise up to a much greater variety of storytelling possibilities. Still, the formula has worked well enough so far, and I had fun watching it. In truth, while the show has now been out for a couple weeks, I binged the eight twenty-something-minute episodes on its release night. The story might be conventional, but it’s a clever retelling of Jurassic World, with the characters reacting to similar events on Isla Nublar way across the island from the main park. There are some cameos from the film, mostly of the dinosaur variety, and we get to see more of the park. I’d go so far as to say that you shouldn’t watch Camp Cretaceous until you’ve watched (or rewatched) Jurassic World, as it’s rewarding to pick up on the copious nods to the film. There is a healthy dose of dramatic irony throughout that’s best appreciated with the foreknowledge of plot awareness.

This show manages to be awe-inspiring, exhilarating, often wickedly funny, and surprisingly character-focused (in the way that the best Jurassic Park films are). It’s not really doing anything new, but it returns to core concepts and tells a good story. And while the character and vehicle models are a bit basic, and some of the animation a little too frictionless, the dinosaurs look really good. It’s fun to watch, and for Jurassic Park fans at least, it’s worth it. Given how it ended, I’m looking forward to the eventual second season.

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