This essay originally published on June 10, 2022.
Creating a Jurassic Park series aimed for younger viewers seems like a fool’s gamble: You can sell them toys, draw them coloring books, and dress them up in t-shirts bearing the iconic skeletal T-Rex logo, but when you start putting the people and the dinosaurs in motion, you hit Chekhov’s Velociraptor. A big part of the franchise is watching misguided industrialists get karmically devoured by ancient reptiles, and if you decide to abstain from the scary thrills that the series has been building since Steven Spielberg’s masterful first film, it might as well not even be a Jurassic Park installment.
So when you see something like Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous, the half hour adventure series that has run for four seasons (its fifth and final one comes this July) on Netflix, your first thought might be “Oh, a more cuddly version of the movies.” It might bring to mind the old Robocop cartoons, which took the violent, genius satire of the 1987 film and filtered it through Saturday morning cartoon tropes (Rad theme song, though.) But the team behind Camp Cretaceous has obviously realized that an approach like that would do a disservice to both older fans who have certain expectations regarding the series and kids that would enjoy some dinosaur antics but are a little young to see it in theaters. And so Camp Cretaceous eliminates the gorier side of things (on screen, anyway) and then pretty much just lets stuff run as usual.
That might seem like a letdown to those who enjoy the chills and restraint of the first film or Spielberg’s glorious slasher flick excess in the second, but Camp Cretaceous understands that the key ingredient to Jurassic Park’s success is a constant feeling of unease, followed by an atmosphere of almost inescapable peril. Developed by X-Men: First Class writer Zack Stentz, the teenagers, abandoned at an adventure camp-esque location on Isla Nublar when Jurassic World goes down, experience every bit of scaly anxiety that their adult counterparts in the live action films do: there is no limit to the amount of things trying to eat them.
When the series begins, it actually takes a few episodes before the concurrent events of Jurassic World begin to happen, meaning that we’re given a chance to breathe and explore Isla Nublar, the beloved island that’s been the home of two-and-a-half films so far. As the series progresses, we get to investigate what the park is actually like and how it’s set up. As someone who is obsessed with the little park details found in things like the original Michael Crichton novel, it’s a treat.
One issue that I’ve had with the Jurassic World trilogy is that its need for spectacle often, ahem, consumes any real emotional momentum or attachment I could have to the characters or scenarios. Centering it around motorcycle-riding, Velociraptor-training tough guy Owen Grady instead of the wary scientists of the original trilogy removes all sense of risk. With him as the protagonist, we don’t ever actually have to worry about anything. He can jump higher, punch harder, and talk to his prehistoric friends better than your average person. He’s a Jurassic World videogame character.
In Camp Cretaceous, the leads are teenagers, with all of the pros and cons that come with it. They don’t always make the best decisions and are not always the experts on what they’re attempting. Their various dinosaur escape plans come with the kind of danger you don’t get if your lead is associated with the Avengers. Here, though, the lead is dinosaur-obsessed Darius Bowman, the youngest of the group and deeply insecure at times. He’s someone we’re able to empathize with as he struggles to guide the group and ascertain his own courage. The rest of the group follows a similar sculpt: surviving a dinosaur-infested island forces them to rise to challenge. It’s not an uncommon plot point in action/adventure animated series (“We must be brave!” is the general mantra of the genre), but it is definitely welcome to be the focus of Camp Cretaceous considering its live action sibling.
Of course, just as with the movies, Camp Cretaceous faces the issue of overstaying its welcome. Obviously, at this point in the franchise, any chance that we’ll be able to return to the relatively sparse amount of dinosaurs seen in the original is gone. Sequels and spinoffs have a tendency to ramp up, and Camp Cretaceous is no different. Luckily, it does give us a few creature spotlights that the movies so far (With the exception of Dominion, which I haven’t seen) have tended to withhold. The Mosasaurus, a highlight of Jurassic World, makes a few appearances here, and Season 4 reintroduces the Spinosaurus after a 20 year break from the beast following Jurassic Park III. The latter is one of the most welcome of all, even if its appearance did kickstart a trend in the franchise of each new movie coming seemingly pre-installed with a new badder super-predator.
Camp Cretaceous isn’t perfect; fans might yearn for the fun luridness of the first few Jurassic Park films, films that saw Spielberg flexing his abilities as a horror filmmaker that just happens to dabble in the creation of dreams. As a show built for a younger audience, you can count on the show cutting away just before a character is eaten, or having the dinosaur attack occur off camera while the leading kids grimace. The ability of the kids to survive is also fairly miraculous, but then again, this is a staple of the best films in the series: The creative, scrappy types make it off the island, while those who participated in the hubris required to revive dinosaurs and make a zoo out of them get turned into lunch.
Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous isn’t really an alternative to the World films—it’s built around their major plot points and serves as a companion piece at times. However, its best moments are a reminder of the highlights of the wider franchise itself. The original Jurassic Park is one of the greatest blockbusters in history, a near perfect exercise in science fiction by a director at the height of his powers and with a script and character work that remain perennially underrated. To achieve those heights again would require a downright supernatural feat of filmmaking. But a collection of average people being amazed, stunned and horrified by an arrogant leap in bio-technology? Camp Cretaceous has got it.
Also, there’s dinosaurs! Did I mention that?
Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.
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