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.

Harley Quinn Fever

Thanks to HBO Max, my wife and I have now watched Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and the Harley Quinn animated series. We loved them both.

My wife prefers Margot Robbie’s depiction, and Robbie is certainly doing a fantastic job, really raising the profile of the character in the public consciousness and providing a fun, whimsical, zany take. She was fun in Suicide Squad, but that movie had plenty of baggage. Birds of Prey is starring, written, and directed by women and presents its female antiheroes as flawed, bizarre, unusual birds of a feather, portrayed as complex and whole people, with a general avoidance of the male gaze. Quinn is coming off a breakup with the Joker, bouncing back from heartbreak, moving on from a life in the supervillain’s shadow, and finding both freedom and danger now that she is out of the Clown Prince of Crime’s bubble. She quickly becomes wrapped up in the lives of three other women and a young girl who are all caught up in taking down the criminal organization of the chillingly psychopathic Black Mask. The narrative chronology is a little more twisted up than it needs to be, but filtered through the unreliable narration of Harley Quinn, the film’s a blast. While the Joker is a driving force behind who Harley Quinn is at the start of the film, he’s entirely absent. This is largely to the film’s benefit, as it can then be about Harley and her new “friends,” but it is a curious choice, given that the film presents itself as a continuation of the same character from Suicide Squad. Sure, the Joker’s not good for Harley, and he was just as monstrous to Dr. Quinzel as any other version of the character, but the two seemed closely bonded and reciprocally loyal. What changed between them?

I really enjoyed Birds of Prey, but I actually favor Harley Quinn. This show provides Harley, voiced here by Kaley Cuoco, a little more autonomy from the get-go, as it is she who breaks up with the abusive Joker. He puts quite a lot of effort into getting her back at first, and then trying to kill her, and then trying to use her, but thanks to her close friendship with Poison Ivy, she is able to persevere and move on, forming her own criminal crew first to get back at Joker and later to do her own thing. Cuoco endows the character with considerable up-beat manic energy, sometimes disrupted by a depressive low (often when finally taking a moment to contemplate how her actions have hurt someone else, or how the Joker or her parents have traumatized her in some way), and sometimes masked in her conversation with Joker in cutesy line delivery straight out of Batman: The Animated Series. One of the things I’ve enjoyed in the series is how it draws on a variety of past representations of characters to distill something new, like the elements of Quinn drawn from that older series, among other comic and film interpretations. Other great examples: Bane is basically a parody of his The Dark Knight Rises version (with some DCAU influence mixed in), Lex Luthor feels straight out of the DCAU, Joker’s appearance changes over the show’s timeline to mirror different versions of the character, Kite Man has his “Hell yeah” catchphrase from his more recent comics incarnation, and Mr. Freeze is given an arc that at first appears to subvert his tragic story from the DCAU only to ultimately play it straight. Some versions of characters are just wacky and new: Commissioner Gordon is a shadow of his former self, lonely and rambling, teetering on the edge of insanity; the Penguin is a hardened criminal mastermind but also something of a family man; the Riddler is a little unhinged, a little weird, quite the survivor, and eventually really buff. The mixing of backgrounds and characterizations, and references to deep cuts from the comics and shows, quickly establishes a rich and varied timeline, of which we’ve only seen bits and pieces. It makes Harley Quinn and her gang feel like just a small (though significant) part of a much bigger world, benefiting from the depth of accumulated storytelling to quickly achieve a sense of a lived-in setting in a way that Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice also used to great effect. And I especially like that under all the layers of comics lore, the show is still fundamentally about a woman figuring out who she really is as she sets out in a newly independent life and tries to set aside the traumas of her past. There are only two seasons so far, but I sure hope we get more of the show.

Both of these versions of Harley Quinn are very good. The former is a good movie and the latter is a good show. I recommend them both. You can easily watch them both on HBO Max now. (Blessedly, Warner Media is moving away from the DC Universe / HBO Max divide. For all the evils of these mega corporations, the least they could do is provide all their television and movie offerings on a single streaming service.)

Taking a Prehistoric Road Trip

I recently had the pleasure of watching the three-part PBS miniseries Prehistoric Road Trip. It’s hosted by Emily Graslie, a science educator affiliated with the Chicago Field Museum. I wasn’t familiar with her before this, but you might know her from projects like her YouTube series, “The Brain Scoop.” Graslie is a delightfully energetic, goofy, nerdy, and thoughtful host, and the show thrives off her charisma as she interacts with a variety of paleontologists throughout the series.

Over the course of the three episodes, Graslie takes us on, well, a Prehistoric Road Trip across Great Plains states to see a variety of fossil collections, active dig sites, and other unique locations that represent millions of years of geologic and paleontological history. What sets this show apart from the dozens of other shows about paleontology and prehistoric creatures is that it is firmly centered on contemporary subjects, showcasing a wide range of modern-day researchers, highlighting interesting areas of current research, and discussing issues that I just haven’t really seen in any similar shows. Some of these interesting issues included the relationship between scientists and landowners, the historic colonialist abuses of mineral and scientific natural resources on indigenous lands and current efforts to reverse those trends, and how studies of past climate change show how unique and dangerous the current man-made climate change event is.

We still get to see a lot of cool prehistoric animals, plants, and even bacteria, but the view is more focused on the fossils themselves (although there are some beautiful still reconstructions along the way in the form of sketches and mounts), ranging from freshly discovered in the ground to mounted in museum displays. Along the way, there’s plenty of opportunity for the layperson to learn about how fossils are discovered and prepared, how decisions are made about what to do with fossils, how fossils can be valuable in different types of research, and even how anyone can volunteer to participate in digs. We get a little bit of the history of paleontology in the American West along the way.

It was really cool to hear from a range of voices that most people probably haven’t heard from before. The number of female and indigenous voices was especially cool, given how paleontology has often seemed to be a field overwhelmingly dominated by white men in the past.

Each episode is a little under an hour, and there are only three. If you have even the slightest interest in paleontology or prehistoric creatures, you should check this out. If you’re a layperson paleontology fan like myself, I feel confident you’ll learn at least one new thing and will have a lot of fun along the way!

BMO’s The Sheriff Now

I wanted to take a quick break from the absolutely stupid amount of Jurassic World: Evolution I’ve been playing to say that the new Adventure Time: Distant Lands – BMO was an absolute delight. It was exactly what I’d hope for an extended episode focused on BMO: silly yet melancholic, delightfully weird, cute and dark. And the ending offers a twisty reinterpretation of where this story sits in the timeline–I didn’t anticipate it, for sure.

I don’t think the episode alone makes even a month of HBO Max worthwhile though, if that’s your only reason for it. But I think it would be a great idea to wait for the full four episodes of Distant Lands to come out and to then pay for a single month’s subscription (or take advantage of a free trial, if available). As for me, I’ve enjoyed HBO Max’s lineup, and while it’s not my favorite subscription service, it’s at least making it easy for me to catch up on years’ worth of prestige television I ignored when people were talking about it. Hopefully new original content will make an ongoing subscription worthwhile, but for now I definitely prefer the functionality of HBO Max for those older shows in contrast to what I always found to be a clunky user interface with Amazon Prime.

TCW 7.12 “Victory and Death”

So that’s how The Clone Wars ends. Somehow both self-reflective and frenetically powered by near-constant action and thrills until the closing moments. Tragic, yet with the faintest glimmer of hope (more because of what we know comes next than because of how it actually ends). A triumph in storytelling and animation, especially looking back over the show’s entire, convoluted history. And a work that compellingly deepens the themes and emotions expressed in Revenge of the Sith.

That was the first thing I did after finishing Episode 12 last night: another viewing of the final prequel film. Having in mind the events on Mandalore, and the scenes that we see just a little bit more of in the show, added fascinating new layers. While my opinions on every Star Wars film shift over time, I’ve generally been impressed with the tragedy of Revenge, but that is so much more amplified with the context of the concluding chapters of The Clone Wars. Now more than ever, Revenge becomes a story of missed opportunities, of small failings. Now more than ever, it’s a story in which the protagonist has been failed by everyone and everything he believes in, where the people who could keep him in the Light are pushed away from him.

I like the tiny things I can read into the movie now. Things I couldn’t read before because they weren’t there before, because they weren’t even a glimmer in Lucas’s eye when the movie was made. I like being able to read a moment’s hesitation on the part of Commander Cody before he orders the firing on Obi-Wan. I like when Palpatine says, “Every single Jedi, including your friend, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is now an enemy of the Republic,” and thinking about how he leaves out Ahsoka. Ahsoka, who has very recently seen Anakin. Ahsoka, who is no longer a Jedi. Ahsoka, who is supposed to talk to Anakin and give her perspective on the Council and help him feel understood when he feels pinned down and betrayed by their hypocrisy, but who never got the chance. I like to think that if Palpatine had mentioned Ahsoka in that moment, Anakin might not have gone along with it. He could let Anakin believe, or hope, that Ahsoka would be excepted and spared. And of course Palpatine directly activates Order 66 among Rex and Ahsoka’s own loyal troopers, anyway. And of course Ahsoka never gets that final chance to commiserate with Anakin, and when he can go looking for her again, she is presumed lost and he has become Darth Vader.

I think my preference would have been for a little more resolving action. A little more setting up how Rex and Ahsoka departed, how they split up, what they intended to do. Of course, we have the Ahsoka novel and Rebels to fill in many of those gaps. And they weren’t moments that the show needed to explore; they were outside its scope. It had reached its end, and while it connects so strongly with other stories later in the timeline, I appreciate from a storytelling perspective that it did not dawdle to wrap everything up with a neat bow, did not document every little twist of continuity to be regurgitated as a factoid by obsessive fans down the road. (By the way, that whole kerfuffle about how Clone Wars contradicted the flashbacks in Ahsoka? It’s not that big a deal at all, and different media can of course tell different stories about the same events–it’s kind of the nature of myth, after all–but I think one could just toss the divergences in the book in-universe up to recollections in dream, or flawed memory, and simply move on with one’s life, rather than sweat the trivia.)

I’m glad this season existed. The Clone Wars now feels complete, even while there are plenty of stories to tell about all that happened during those wars. (Moments referred to in the show but not shown, either because they were side references or from Legends. Stories with other characters not chronicled across the galaxy. And where is Echo in the end? What does he do after he’s rescued and joins up with the Bad Batch?)

With that chapter completed, and another viewing of Revenge of the Sith under my belt, I think it’s time to rewatch Rebels too (and finally see the final season of that, as well). I really love Filoni’s contributions to Star Wars!

TCW 7.11: “Shattered”

Wow. Order 66. Even knowing the outcome, even knowing for years now thanks to Rebels that both Rex and Ahsoka made it through the Clone Wars, this was an intense and anxiety-inducing episode. The score was anxious and melancholy, occasionally punctuated by the tunes from Revenge of the Sith that accompanied its own depiction of Order 66. The pacing was incredible, such that we couldn’t believe that almost a half an hour had passed by the end. And there were so many moments that felt, again, like a slightly different action, a moment aside with a character, a more frank conversation, could have changed everything. It was really cool to see scenes and moments from the movie bridged right into the episode. And Maul, after being put in his place and sent on his way by Ahsoka, is absolutely terrifying–and brutal! I don’t know what the final episode might do; I don’t know how you can conclude it all in just one more episode. This is wild. This is great TV. This is great Star Wars.

Apparently, the final episode is set to air a little earlier. This Monday, it looks like. That’s still too far away!

TCW 7.10: “Phantom Apprentice”

This Siege of Mandalore arc is adding so much nuance to Revenge of the Sith, which is already an above-average Star Wars film.

I love how much Maul recognizes and has figured out Sidious’s vision–how close he was to figuring it all out in time, how much he realizes he was just a pawn in a grandmaster’s game, how he could have almost destabilized it all. When he is foiled, because Maul is always foiled, I could sort of feel for him. He knows what is coming and he’s going to fail to stop it.

I love the moment when Maul and Ahsoka have something approaching a parley, and how that moment feels like one of the critical shatterpoints (to use Mace Windu’s preferred term) of the entire saga. Someone on Twitter suggested the following quote from the Revenge of the Sith novelization as the epigraph for this arc, since these episodes have eschewed that Clone Wars tradition:

This story happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is already over. Nothing can be done to change it.

I found myself thinking about that in relation to the episode. It fits so well, and it really pops in context of the Ahsoka/Maul confrontation. You can’t help but feel that if Ahsoka had sided with Maul, everything could have played out very differently. Maybe the Sith would have still ruled, maybe the galaxy would have descended into chaos…or maybe a weary and battered Jedi Order would have been able to rebuild the Republic (or something better) over time. I felt as though Ahsoka was facing options that could have completely reprogrammed the outcome of Revenge of the Sith–but of course, her fate and the fates of her friends are already set in stone. There was fantastic tension, not only for this story, but for the bigger story whose outcome we already know in full.

I love how Obi-Wan was really trying to reach out to Anakin. He knew the Jedi Council was wrong and felt awful for giving Anakin the assignment of spying on the Chancellor. That much was clear in Revenge of the Sith. But it’s heartbreaking that Obi-Wan tried to turn to Ahsoka, knowing she would understand how Anakin felt in facing the hypocrisy of the Council, hoping that she could get through to him–heartbreaking because we know she’ll never get that chance.

I love the beautiful, wild, jaw-dropping lightsaber battle between Ahsoka and Maul. The mo-capped choreography is incredible. The wide-ranging setpieces used to host the sprawling fight are impressive, as well. The final high-beam fight has a dangerous, acrobatic energy comparable to Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fight.

I even love the tacky episode title, living up to the spirit of the goofy serial names of the other films, nodding to The Phantom Menace of Sidious’s grand plot against the Republic and the Jedi, and (it would seem) ultimately referring to Anakin, who has been groomed to be Sidious’s new apprentice all this time, as Maul now knows.

I love so much about this beautiful, exhilarating, emotional episode. Only two more left, and then The Clone Wars will be complete!

TCW 7.9: “Old Friends Not Forgotten”

What a rousing start to the Siege of Mandalore arc! From the opening title sequence to the ending cliffhanger, this was another great episode of television–at 30 minutes, still short, compared to the 50-to-60-minute standard of bingeable dramas nowadays, but a little longer than the typical Clone Wars episode or comparable cartoon.

I’m sure every fan delighted in the use of the old Lucasfilm logo and classic film scores. There are also a number of great nods to earlier episodes of The Clone Wars, and to the larger franchise. A particularly great moment for me happens early on, when Anakin uses a faked surrender to secure the capture of a critical bridge–a plot point that echoes Obi-Wan’s delaying deception from the series’ introductory movie.

This episode also lets Ahsoka put Anakin and Obi-Wan to task when she’s reunited with them. She’s clearly learned from her experiences among non-Jedi, and the politicking and cultivated distance from the vulnerable now frustrate her. Obi-Wan continues to act like a model Jedi, but in distancing himself from Mandalore, in trying to respect Satine’s fervent defense of neutrality and pacifism, Obi-Wan presents as weak to his young friend, as worrying more about what the Council will think than what is right. And frankly, I think Obi-Wan’s concerns are justified, but I understand Ahsoka’s perspective, shaped by Anakin’s impulsive, action-oriented persona and further defined by her exposure to the galaxy’s citizens who struggle and suffer because of the Jedi’s neglect of their concerns.

When Obi-Wan and Anakin get called off near the end to rescue Palpatine, Ahsoka gets in a brutal jab at Kenobi. He’s not going to help the people of Coruscant, she says; instead, he’s going because the Chancellor needs help. Obi-Wan says that’s not fair, but Ahsoka retorts that she wasn’t trying to be fair. When this arc is over, I’ll be very interested to rewatch Revenge of the Sith, and I can’t help but think already about how this exchange must color Obi-Wan’s perspective throughout the events of the film. By the end of Revenge, he’s failed his best friend, the Jedi Order, the Republic…and this young self-exile, too. It’s a lot for him to carry.

Ahsoka and Anakin also had a touching farewell, points of which brought me near to tears. Is this truly the last moment they ever had together (until years after he becomes Vader)? While they ended on good terms, will Ahsoka regret choosing to be more distant? It’s very Jedi-like of her to be willing to let go of a friendship, but her attitude toward him, while grateful and respectful, could make him feel that he’s already lost her. It’s not Ahsoka’s problem, but it’s still likely to have had an impact.

If I had a criticism, it would be that the show expects us to understand the Maul situation better than is perhaps warranted. Even having recently finished a rewatch of the earlier seasons, enough weeks have passed with the steady drip of new episodes that I don’t have a crystal-clear recall of what happened at the end of Maul’s reign over Mandalore. And I had read the Dark Horse comic chronicling what happened to Maul after Sidious reclaimed him, but that’s been even farther in the past. While many of the people watching this new season are probably hardcore fans, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there are a lot of new viewers, hopping on via access to Disney+. I can’t be the only one straining to recall details, and some might be scratching their heads in pure confusion. Of course, the show has always played rather light with exposition and connective tissue–think of Admiral Trench’s reappearances, or what exactly was going on with Mother Talzin, or even how exactly Maul came back the first time. But just because it’s a feature of the show to avoid clearly explaining developments between episodes or seasons doesn’t make it a good feature. While there was a lot happening, I was surprised that the creators couldn’t take time to provide even a couple of sentences of dialogue to explain just how Maul ended up back in control of Mandalore. Maybe we’ll get that later. Either way, the little bit of confusion this caused me doesn’t take much away from an otherwise great episode.