Camp Nowhere

1994, Movie, PG, 96 mins

Review

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"This Summer Kids Rule" went the ad blurb attached to this wan family comedy released through Disney's Hollywood Pictures subsidiary. That phrase was the most perceptive thing about the movie; kids did rule the summer of '94, at least in the minds of studio packagers. Seemingly numberless kiddie pics contended for the family audience; by the time CAMP NOWHERE opened in August, the duds far outnumbered the hits, and few moviegoers of any age patronized this straggler.

Undersized, underappreciated Morris Himmel (Jonathan Jackson), nicknamed "Mud," faces another season at computer camp thanks to his techno-nerd dad, until he realizes he and his pals can escape by concocting a fictional facility and tricking their folks into sending them there instead. To pull off the hoax, they need the cooperation of at least one grownup, and they blackmail Dennis Van Welker (Christopher Lloyd), a debt-ridden ex-drama teacher and born con artist, into cooperating. Using numerous disguises and personalities, Van Welker persuades the adults that his mirage of a camp will teach the little ones computing, theater crafts, weight loss, and even military skills. Rumors of the scam spread, and soon every child in the neighborhood wants a bunk at "Camp Nowhere." Mud and his co-conspirators accommodate them all by renting an abandoned hippie commune in the woods and refurbishing it as a facsimile camp.

When the kids arrive in camp, the serviceable premise collapses in confusion. First the happy campers use their parents' tuition money to buy truckloads of high-tech toys and luxuries. Mud and Van Welker share some paternal male-bonding moments, and the man--passing himself off as Mud's widowed dad--starts a sweet romance with a nearby nurse (Wendy Makkena, best known as the timid young nun from the SISTER ACT flicks). Character actor M. Emmet Walsh plays a dogged repo man determined to track down the elusive Van Welker for skipping payments on his AMC Gremlin.

The finale finds the parents, intrigued by their offspring's glowing descriptions of their camp in letters home, coming by for a visit. Using movable facades, costume changes, and Rube Goldberg-type devices, Mud and company are able make the place metamorphose to meet the expectations of each successive tour group of moronic moms and dads. Only a raid by the repo man uncovers the deception. Van Welker tries to protect the youngsters by claiming to be a crazed cult leader who brainwashed them all summer long, but Mud steps forward to accept the blame. The parents admit that their little ones did have a good time, everyone enjoys a hearty laugh, and all is forgiven.

At the conclusion, Christopher Lloyd sits down with newcomer Jonathan Jackson and has one of those I-hope-you've-learned-something-from-all-this conversations. That's just the problem; what is there to learn from CAMP NOWHERE? Essentially that parents are all gullible fools, a given in almost any kiddie pic made in the previous decade. Apart from a canned morality lesson about how Mud's brains earn him the long-withheld respect of his peers, the movie is a singularly empty vessel, not too funny, unfunny, or anything.

Nevertheless, watching Lloyd run through chameleonlike identity switches is a minor revelation. With his large, lanky frame and maniacal stare, this performer, a likely candidate for horror or villain typecasting, has instead turned into a staple of family features. The child performers are adequate, though not exactly standouts. Eleven-year-old Nathan Cavaleri, reportedly a musical prodigy and blues-guitar sensation in his native Australia, makes an unremarkable feature acting debut. It all adds to the suspicion that elements were in place for a fun time here, but it just didn't happen--rather like a lot of summer camps. leave a comment

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