Thursday, August 23, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Camp Nowhere (1994)

Once upon a time, I was a student at Tommy Cho Karate in East Cobb. In addition to biweekly classes and birthdays, Mr. Cho occasionally had sleepover parties where we watched movies. One movie I remember watching is Camp Nowhere, featuring Christopher Lloyd, Kate Mulgrew (better known from Star Trek Voyager), Jessica Alba in a minor role, and a bunch of other child actors I've never heard of. Well, the good old Myopia: Defend Your Childhood podcast gave me the chance to revisit this film, as it has many others.

Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

Morris "Mud" Himmel (Jonathan Jackson) and his friend Zach Dell (Andrew Keegan) are going to be sent off yet again for the whole summer to camps they hate--in Mud's case a computer camp and Zach's case military-style camp owing to his poor behavior. Meanwhile, their female friends Gaby Nowicki (Melody Kay) and Trish Prescott (Marnette Patterson) are in the same predicament, with fat camp for Gaby despite her not being fat and acting camp for Trish (and a completely different camp for her sister) so her parents can take a nice long vacation.

Mud devises a scheme to create a fake summer camp where they can do what they want, and they enlist a down-on-his-luck actor and former teacher at their school Dennis Van Welker (Christopher Lloyd) to pull it off. Things go pretty well until the kids' antics attract the attention of local doctors and law enforcement and the parents decide to visit the camp to see what their little darlings have been up to.

The Good

*Christopher Lloyd shows off his comedic acting talents as the down-on-his-luck actor Van Welker. He's always a joy to watch. The montage of him pretending to be the counselor for an acting camp, a computer, camp, a fat camp, and a military camp in order to sell the different kids' parents on the scheme is pretty amusing, as is a close encounter of the worst kind between him and a car wash. Pure, as TVTropes would put it, Refuge in Audacity. And amazing facial expressions.

*There's a bit of, as TVTropes would put it, Reality Ensues when one of the kids is injured and requires medical attention. Let's be realistic...a bunch of middle-schoolers trying to pull something like this would run into all sorts of problems. There's also homesickness, boredom, and what constituents do their leaders when things go poorly in the short run.

*Per the almighty TVTropes, all of the major characters have arcs--Mud and Zach learn to be responsible (and Mud abandons his self-loathing for being a "geek"), Gaby lays off the junk food, and Trish mellows out. Mud's arc is the most obvious, which makes sense since he's the main character. And although TVTropes doesn't point this out, I noticed that Van Welker has an arc as well. He starts out basically as this slacker who's blackmailed into this by a bunch of middle schoolers and uses the whole situation as an excuse to live in a cabin by the lake and flirt with the local doctor, but partway through he starts to remember he was a teacher (albeit one with rather poor judgement--seriously, trying to stage a middle-school musical version of Silence of the Lambs?) and he does have responsibilities to the kids. All these arcs in turn tie in with the ending of the film.

*The film can be read as a criticism of over-scheduling kids in favor of more free play. The various camps the kids' parents want them to go to tend to be super-focused on particular activities (computers, acting) rather than simply letting kids have fun over the summer. The links I posted above contain various articles written from all ends of the political/cultural/moral spectrum criticizing society's tendency to over-schedule kids and in favor of more unstructured imaginative play. Obviously kids need to be supervised to some degree so they don't kill themselves, but free range kids were the norm up until relatively recently and the world has only gotten more safe since then. Alternatively, as Nick and Thomas pointed out in the podcast, one could read this an endorsement of providing at least some structure for kids--they grow bored with endless free play and ultimately have more fun with more organized activities in the later part of the film. One could argue both elements are in play--as the ancient Greeks said, "moderation in all things."

*Zach is clearly a case of, as the Bible would put it, bad company corrupting good character. The movie starts out with him pretending to bully Mud in order to maintain his "reputation" with a bunch of juvenile delinquent friends. Another character even points this out pretty early in the film.

*There are some good middle-school humor jokes, like one of the bullies becoming only effective after having experienced a growth spurt.

*Ironically enough, when the parents come to visit, the kids have to do a lot of the stuff they were supposed to do anyway to fool them--putting on dramatic productions, conducting military drills, etc. That was pretty funny.

The Bad

*Although Gaby is being sent off to fat camp when she doesn't need it and Trish is just being sent away so her parents can go on a prolonged vacation rather than spend time with her and her sister, Mud and Zach are rather disrespectful to their parents, especially Zach. In his case, military camp might be necessary to teach him discipline, although one might argue that his father's excessive strictness is exacerbating his son's troublemaking (by provoking his rebellious tendencies) rather than solving it.

*Although Mud is clever enough to come up with the scheme, he looks like he's 11 or 12. His dialogue comes off as something someone far older and wittier would say.

*It was my understanding that Gaby wasn't actually overweight and her parents (in particular her mother) were erroneously convinced otherwise. The actress certainly isn't. However, her character arc involves her ditching junk food and Mud discusses how someday she'll lose weight and become attractive. That kind of mixed messaging could be a problem given the prevalence of eating disorders and even girls of normal body sizes thinking they're "fat." TL;DR She's not fat, and the movie is not being especially responsible for conceding even the possibility she is.

*The characters are all 12-13. Just how interested in the opposite sex are they going to be? Perhaps I was a late bloomer, but although I'd outgrown the "girls are icky" early-elementary idiocy, I wasn't really interested in girls in the romantic sense until a little later in middle school. I'm pretty there was a Simpsons episode involving a "valley girl" trying to organize a school dance and nobody was really into it, with Lisa being the voice of reason. Yet Mud and Zach have have romantic subplots and in the side of one shot we see two kids making out. They're not high schoolers, yet they seem to act like them.

*This isn't really a knock against the film's quality, but the movie works best for a pre-Internet age. A few minutes of Googling would have blown the scheme up right away unless Van Welker was a skilled web developer and had a bunch of fake Yelp accounts too--in which case, he probably wouldn't be working at a cheese shop in the mall and hiding from the repo man.

*The movie kind of drags in the middle. Would've been better if they'd tightened it up a little.

The Verdict

Entertaining but flawed. 7.5 out of 10.

No comments:

Post a Comment