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‘Magic Camp’ abracada-blah

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There was a time that Disney was an absolute dynamo with regard to making family-friendly live-action fare. The 1960s and ‘70s were marked with scores of light, forgettable films aimed at kids, movies that were simple, disposable entertainment.

Once the animation renaissance of the ‘90s hit, those live-action offerings largely vanished. Big Mouse’s annual entry into the cartoon arena proved wildly lucrative, so the studio largely eschewed the sorts of Dean Jones- or young Kurt Russell-led films that they had spent 20-plus years churning out.

In a way, the Disney+ movie “Magic Camp” is something of a throwback to those die-cut assembly line films with a distinct Disney Channel Original Movie flavor profile. It’s got a cast featuring a couple of notable actors and a handful of generally adorable kids in a narrowly focused summer camp setting. It’s a familiar formula revolving around familiar characters; there’s a distinct feeling of boxes being checked throughout.

That said, one imagines that young viewers will find a lot to like about this movie. There’s a good deal of silliness and some simple story arcs involving both kids and adults that will prove accessible. Again, there’s nothing particularly exciting about this movie, but there are worse ways for your child to spend a couple of hours.

Theo (Nathanial McIntyre, TV’s “David Makes Man”) is a kid living in California with his mom and little brother. He’s an aspiring close-up magician with real talent, although he has become far more withdrawn since the passing of his father. But when the opportunity to spend his summer at the Institute of Magic, a magic camp for kids, he opts to give it a go.

Andy (Adam Devine, TV’s “The Righteous Gemstones”) is a Las Vegas taxi driver, a former magician who still resents his ex-partner Chris Darkwood (Gillian Jacobs, “I Used to Go Here”) for abandoning him and going on to headlining success. His mentor Preston (Jeffrey Tambor, TV’s “Arrested Development”) – the director of the Institute of Magic – reaches out, asking him if he will serve as a counselor at the camp. He agrees, despite the fact that Darkwood will also be there.

Theo winds up in Andy’s group, the Hearts. It’s a collection of misfits, first-time campers with little experience. There’s Nathan (Cole Sand, TV’s “3Below: Tales of Arcadia”), a math whiz with a laundry list of allergies. There’s Ruth (Isabella Crovetti, TV’s “Shimmer and Shine”), a young girl obsessed with bunnies. You’ve got angry edgy Vera (Izabella Alvarez, TV’s “Westworld”) and second-generation magician Judd (Josie Totah, TV’s “No Good Nick”).

From there, we get the usual flavor of summer camp underdog hijinks, only with a stage magic twist. There are a couple of “they’re bad and then they’re better” training montages. There are bonding moments between predictably “unexpected” parties. There’s a love interest for Theo from another cabin and a bully who refers to himself in the third person. Ultimately, we get the competition for best cabin (the Top Hat) and the best individual magician (the Golden Wand).

And that’s “Magic Camp.”

It’s … OK. It’s a movie that will serve as a decent enough distraction in the moment before almost immediately evaporating from your head. It was actually filmed back in 2017, getting shelved from its intended theatrical release for a number of reasons (likely including the controversy surrounding Jeffrey Tambor at the time); regardless, when a movie gathers dust for that long, chances are that it has some issues.

You’ve seen everything here before. It’s pretty standard summer camp movie boilerplate for the most part, hitting all the typical beats you’d expect in this brand of tween-targeted fare. It occasionally feints toward doing something with a little more depth, but with the divided attention between Andy’s and Theo’s arcs, there simply isn’t time. And so, we get something that is very much middling and surface level in terms of narrative.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had. There’s an undeniable charm to “Magic Camp” – particularly in its willingness to lean into the fundamental dorkiness that comes with stage magic. And those sequences where we see the kids doing their tricks – particularly at the summer’s end competition show – are absolutely fun to watch. Plus, it’s kind of nice to watch a movie with kids basically being kids, with none of the preternatural precociousness we often get from films driven by child actors.

This may read as some sort of insult (it’s not), but Adam Devine is a perfect fit for this sort of project. There’s something childlike about his energy – in a good way. He’s ideally suited for a “man-child grows up but only kinda” role such as this one; his rapport with the kids feels genuine. Tambor’s presence is a little problematic, but he’s not around as much as you might fear. Jacobs turns up even less; it very much feels like she had a limited window of availability and so the filmmakers took what they could get. Rochelle Aytes as Theo’s mom and Aldiss Hodge as his dad (in flashbacks) are good in limited work.

On the kiddie side of things, the performances are solid and consistent, if perhaps a little on the hammy side. McIntyre leads the way, capturing the shyness and grief of a young man still dealing with loss. The rest are probably a notch below, performance-wise – they’ve all turned up the volume, but in a way that works. As a group, they’re a good bunch.

“Magic Camp” doesn’t quite capture the, well, magic of classic kiddie camp movies. But it does earn a place in the long history of fine, forgettable live-action offerings from Disney. Again – not a bad movie. Just one that will disappear from your memory before you can say abracadabra.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 17 August 2020 07:17

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