If I’m being a truthasaurus, I had dino-sized doubts as Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous roared to life on my television. Thought one was: Does the world really need an animated version of Jurassic Park? Thought two bothered me far more: Will the show’s makers wimp-out and give us cutesy dinosaurs? I loved watching the Land Before Time movies with my kids as much as anybody, but we’re talking about the Jurassic Park franchise here.
The answer to both questions is… No. The sun would still rise just fine without Camp Cretaceous, which is streaming now on Netflix, but a lack of need never ever stopped any conglomerate from spinning off its next potentially lucrative iteration of a blockbuster, long-running property. That said, Camp Cretaceous delivers the goods and it does so in large part because it embraces the scares right from the get-go. Apparently, the makers of this eight-episode first season heeded the advice of executive producer and Jurassic Park mastermind Steven Spielberg, who, upon conferring his blessing upon the project, implored the team not to go all “kiddie” with the material. Kudos to them for listening. The dinosaurs are fearsome, the roars deafeningly loud, and threats loom around every corner and behind every cluster of trees.
Camp Cretaceous unfolds in the same universe as the newer Jurassic World films, just on the other side of Isla Nublar. Six teens have earned the right (Willy Wonka-style) to help break in Camp Cretaceous, a brand-new, state-of-the-art adventure camp. And so we meet an athletic but shy girl; the arrogant rich boy; an Instagram-famous girl who gets to keep her phone so she can report to her 20-something million followers; the dorky boy with a very, very queasy stomach; a fun-loving girl; and the gamer kid and dinosaur enthusiast who really knows his Mosasaurus from an Indominus rex. That last character is Darius, and he’s the audience’s eyes, ears, and pounding heart – as well as the only one of the kids excited to be on the island. He’s also the prototypical Spielberg-ian young hero: smart, practical, a tad obsessive, relatable, and… fatherless. In an early scene, Darius’ tough-but-loving older brother even says, “Dad wouldn’t want this,” as he urges his sibling to live a little (and maybe shower, too). So, expect bickering, teasing, preening, a toxic-masculinity joke, a great deal of puking, and the overcoming of fears, as well as some initially grudging teamwork and burgeoning friendships as this group bonds in subsequent episodes.
For the adults out there, Camp Cretaceous isn’t too terrifying for the children at home. You’ll get just enough ferocious roars and bared chompers to enjoy it yourself, without sending your kid crying and screaming into another room. And for any longtime Jurassic Park fans, of which I am one, Camp Cretaceous doles out numerous entertaining callbacks, from a visual of a puddle of water rippling ominously as a dinosaur approaches to the name drop of a figure from the current live-action films to strains from John Williams’ iconic score. In fact, that soaring music elevates the first episode’s most majestic sequence, as the main half-dozen teens excitedly sweep over an awe-inspiring parade of dinosaurs below via a zipline. I got goosebumps.
Now, there are a few quibbles to address. We’ve seen this story, and these kids, before – and often. Seeing such characters and their de rigueur banter in a fresh setting only mitigates the familiarity so much. And while the 3D look of Camp Cretaceous is mostly superb, human eyes remain the bugaboo of far too many animated productions. The characters’ eyes here are distractingly large and the kids seem unable to make genuine eye contact, which hurts several key scenes that lose their intended emotional impact as a result.
Everything considered, though, episode one of Camp Cretaceous will leave you wanting more – more dinosaurs, more thrills, and more collaboration as the kids try to save themselves and quite possibly the outside world from those crazy reanimated beasts. And, rest assured, there will be more. As one of the kids’ counselors gleefully/ominously points out, “They’re cooking up all kinds of new dinos in the lab.” So, even without a child of my own at home at the moment, can I bring myself to watch a few more hours of Camp Cretaceous? You bet Jurassican.