The magic of the Jurassic Park franchise has always been its sense of awe. From Michael Chrichton‘s more science-minded approach with the novels’ larger-than-life Frankenstein riff to Steven Spielberg‘s groundbreaking film adaptation, the sequels, and Colin Trevorrow’s updated reimagining with Jurassic World; it’s all about the highs and lows of awe. It’s wondering at the audacity of daring to play god. It’s Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s wide-eyed, slack-jawed expressions of joy the first time they see a Brachiosaurus towering over them. It’s the way you can’t help but marvel along with them with butterflies in your stomach. And of course, it’s the moment that awe catches and sours into terror, those butterflies swarm into a frenzy of fear, and you simply must go faster because playing god tends to yield ungodly results and now there’s a giant monster snapping at your heels.
The awe and the terror; Netflix’s action-packed new animated series Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous makes a meal out of both with a surprisingly effective riff on what fans love most about the Jurassic franchise. I say surprisingly because the eight-episode, half-hour first season is ostensibly aimed at kids, released under the Netflix Family banner and presented by DreamWorks Animation. From showrunners Scott Kreamer and Aaron Hammersley, with executive producers including Steven Spielberg, Colin Trevorrow, and Frank Marshall, and developed by Zack Stentz, Camp Cretaceous walks the line between family-friendly and stomach-knotting with a deft hand, crafting believable high stakes, strong character arcs, and some genuinely thrilling set-pieces.
Set during the events of Jurassic World, Camp Cretaceous reimagines the disastrous dino breakout from the perspective of a group of teenagers who just scored exclusive invites to a new youth-oriented adventure park (the titular Camp Cretaceous) on the other side of the island. But before they survive the dinosaurs, they have to survive each other.
Featuring a mismatched ensemble of teens in the Breakfast Club tradition, Camp Cretaceous stars Paul-Mikél Williams as Darius, a die-hard dino nerd who’d be living the dream if he hadn’t just suffered a devastating personal loss; Jenna Ortega as Brooklynn, a tenacious social media star struggling with her chronic need for approval; Ryan Potter as Kenji, a privileged hotshot with a big blazing ego and a soft teddy bear heart; Raini Rodriguez as Sammy, a vivacious and loquacious farm girl who wants to be everyone’s friend; Kausar Mohammed as Yaz, an accomplished young athlete who’d just as well be left alone; and Sean Giambrone as Ben, an anxious and allergy-riddled kid who’d rather be anywhere else.
Even though they can barely stand each other at first, the kids do fine work getting into trouble in a hurry in their own right, but things take a terrifying turn when they’re separated from their well-meaning but ineffective chaperones (Jameela Jamil and Glen Powell) after the Indominous Rex starts wreaking havoc on the main park. With no one to count on but each other, the group of mismatched teens has to work past their differences to make it out alive.
If that sounds like a pretty generic logline, it is, and Camp Cretaceous’ greatest weakness is that it doesn’t really bring anything new or unexpected to the well-established franchise or these YA tropes. The animation, though occasionally stunning (especially a sequence set in bioluminescent caves) holds pretty tightly to the DreamWorks house style, and likewise, many of the broad narrative beats will feel pretty familiar to any Jurassic fan. In fairness, part of that is inevitable considering the series is structured around the events of a film we’ve already seen, and credit to the writers for finding fun, cheeky ways to lace those into their own narrative. Most importantly, the characters are engaging enough to make it all work, and heck, for some people, it might be a feature, not a bug. Considering the mixed-negative response the franchise gets whenever it gets wacky or leaves the islands (I have a soft spot for The Lost World and Fallen Kingdom, if that helps give you an idea of whether our sensibilities line up or not), it seems a lot of fans prefer the straight-up, tried-and-true survival elements of the franchise.
Camp Cretaceous does those very well. The idea of six kids fending for themselves in the deadly-as-hell Jurassic world might seem far-fetched, but it plays like gangbuster in the animated format. And while you shouldn’t expect grisly gore or mean-spirited kills, Camp Cretaceous shows real teeth (yuk yuk), proving that while the spectacle of big-budget effects and star-studded casts may help along the awe factor, good characters and a well-constructed set-piece are all you need to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. And because most viewers will come in with so much knowledge about the narrative framework of the series, Camp Cretaceous is able to incorporate those expectations into clever payoffs that alternately made me wince, gasp, and chuckle out loud.
The surprise 2019 short film Battle at Big Rock proved there’s a lot of potential to reinterpreting the Jurassic franchise through the short format. Camp Cretaceous makes fine following up that promise, striking a good balance between quiet character moments and one or two hair-raising set-pieces each episode. But I suspect a lot of viewers will watch the show like I did, straight down the hatch in one go. Netflix is ever the master class in binge-watching, after all. Fortunately, Camp Cretaceous works just as well in a single blast, charting rewarding mysteries and character payoffs among the action, and earning its runtime without overstaying its welcome.
All that non-stop tension (and probably a few more deaths than you’re expecting) might make Camp Cretaceous a bit too scary for young kids, but it should play well for most ages. And it’s not just the action or the thrills that’ll work for older audiences, there’s a knowing sense of humor that flows through the chaos. One of the few Good Actually things to come out of 2020 so far has been the parody twitter account Jurassic Park Updates, which delivers ace jokes at such an impossible rate and skewers the franchise tropes with such precision, I’m not sure I’ll be able to take a fully earnest Jurassic entry serious for a long time. But Camp Cretaceous has a lowkey meta spirit that acknowledges those same expectations through its characters. They’re not blasé or indifferent in an offputting way, but they’re not fools either. They know the dangers, they know the history, some of them vary from suspicious to outright terrified. They seem like kids who probably follow Jurassic Park Update too. They get the joke. But they also know it’s not funny when you’re the punchline.
It all comes back to that essential balance of awe and terror. Because the core characters are so young, both only feel amplified, their circumstances direr and more enchanting. It also opens their journey up to an unexpected bit of universally recognizable existential reckoning. In previous Jurassic installments, the perspective of the kids has always been matched by those of experts, paleontologists, and high-ranking park employees. Because Camp Cretaceous is from the perspective of kids left to fend for themselves, the recurring experience is that of disappointing adult leadership, structural failures, and the quick dissolution of the systems they thought would protect them. Maybe it just hits different after the colossal, paradigm-altering nightmare of systemic failure we’ve endured this year, but the idea that we all have to get past our difference to rescue ourselves certainly lands. At one point a character exclaims, “To the return of a low-level gnawing dread rather than an all-encompassing impending doom!” Hear, hear, buddy.
Deep thoughts about an animated dinosaur series aside, Camp Cretaceous delivers almost everything you could want from a family-friendly dino adventure. Tightly scripted with smart characters, Netflix’s animated Jurassic adventure checks all the right boxes. Best of all, it has a knack for capturing the wonders and horrors that make dinosaurs such a perennial favorite for putting a sparkle in your eye and a pit in your stomach. There’s an infectious joy for the material that often reminded me of the feeling you would get as a kid when you loved something so much, you made up alternate versions where you were a part of it. It’s a rawr-ing good time, and it might just be the best Jurassic adventure since Spielberg stopped directing them himself.
Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is now streaming on Netflix.