Released: 14th August
Seen: 16th August
Disney+ original movies are what we will kindly call a mixed bag… unkindly we can say I’d like to put a mix of them into a bag and then throw that bag in a river. They aren’t good, and today I will be talking about another not good one because apparently somehow we started with a movie called Magic Camp that was meant to be written and star the iconic Steve Martin and ended up with a discount TV movie starring Jeffrey Tambor… fun.
Magic Camp begins with a kid named Theo (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre) who is sad because he has a dead dad, which for Disney is what we call “A change of pace from the usual dead moms”. While he is having his sad time, Theo gets a very fancy and expensive looking invitation to attend The Institute of Magic, AKA Magic Camp which is apparently a thing you need an invitation to. Meanwhile, failed magician Andy (Adam Devine) is a taxi driver in Las Vegas but instead of doing something interesting like assassinating the pimp of an underage prostitute he ends up being offered a job at the aforementioned Magic Camp.
What follows is basically Sister Act 2 with magic instead of a choir… and with terrible writing and much more boring characters. Oh, and also a lot of party magic that’s not as cool as the movie thinks it is.
I’m not saying Magic Camp feels incredibly out of date, but it stars Jeffrey Tambor (playing the guy who runs the camp… so yeah, position of power) and that man was fired from his TV series in February of 2018 for sexual harassment and that’s only like 37% of the reason why this movie is a hard thing to sit through. Most of the reason is that we’ve seen this movie done so many times before that it’s beyond parody at this point. I joke that this is basically Sister Act 2 with magic but I make that joke because that’s the last movie I can think of where this kind of plot actually worked and had some kind of emotional impact (you tell me you don’t beam with pride when the Sister Mary Clarence’s kids start hip hopping out to Joyful Joyful. You can’t, you’d be lying if you tried to)
The entire plot is one we’ve seen a thousand times, “Kids who aren’t good at a thing get taught to be good at a thing by a teacher who sees this as a last chance for them”. It’s a standard setup that can work well in the right hands with the right lead and the right execution to make it interesting… we had that, but someone thought changing Steve Martin for Adam Devine was a good exchange. It’s not, Adam Devine is a good actor but what he’s good at works in certain contexts and this is not one of them. He’s not someone who works as the guy to make a bunch of kids pay attention, he feels more like the cool uncle who is just as bad as the kids.
Magic Camp has the structure that one would expect of a film that has six writers. To be specific, the only way a film has this kind of structure is if those six writers wrote very different scripts and handed them to an assistant who carried the scripts down a flight of rickety stairs. The assistant then trips, the script pages go flying and the assistant just grabs the first 90 pages they can find and that’s what they shot. To make it clear, we’re talking about major plot points that end up meaning nothing, key pieces of information seemingly forgotten by the characters (info like “who won the golden wand about 3 minutes ago”) and scenes that happen in places that are objectively the wrong place for those scenes to happen.
My favourite moment of “This was in a different draft and you forgot to remove it, didn’t you?” happens when they’re getting ready for the final show and the kids we’re meant to care about try to hire props but everything’s been hired out. So, in one of those cool “the underdogs make do with scraps” moments, the kids and Andy go into town to buy assorted cheap crap like candy and discount clothing to try and pull off a show… and then the second they get back to camp another counsellor says “Oh I told them to return all the props” and it’s just forgotten. This isn’t a clever subversion of the whole “Oh, at the last minute everything’s going wrong and the kids need to salvage it” thing, they just couldn’t figure out how to make a cool act with pigeons, candy and second hand clothing so they wrote it out.
It’s just so poorly thought out that you wonder if anyone even double checked the pile of pages the assistant handed them before starting to film, and you realise quickly that no one double checked anything because then they might’ve realised this wasn’t working and not done it. Then again, maybe someone checked after the film was done and that explains why it’s sat on a shelf for nearly two years until we hit this strange period where we’re desperate enough for content that it felt acceptable to release this.
To be fair as I can be to a film I just do not like, the kids in this film are impressive as hell. Apparently they learned all the tricks that they do in the film and considering they didn’t have long to learn them and had to do them on camera in one take, they’re actually impressive. While anyone could see much better magic on an average episode of Fool Us, considering the age of the kids involved and that this isn’t meant to be super top brand magic it’s cool how they managed to make it work… though, oh my god, whoever decided we needed to have a bully who harasses people by making them pick a card and then humiliating them with mean magic tricks needs to be shunned publicly because that was a really bad side character who I bet was a major antagonist in an earlier draft but they removed all the scenes where he did things.
It was around the time we got to the scene where a skunk (named Fred, which one character claims is crazy funny) sprayed the child cast that I wondered what it was I was doing with my life. Here I am, watching a bad children’s film starring Jeffrey Tambor about kids doing magic and I don’t believe I laughed once. Not even at the painful pun involving Lucky Charms being magically delicious (oh, there’s a scene where Andy somehow rigs up about 8 garbage cans full of Lucky Charms and milk that he dumps on the kids he’s looking after… this is what we’re working with) or at any of Tambors stretched out musings… though that was mostly because I refuse to laugh at Tambor on principle.
If we’re kind we can compliment the kids on being good actors who did good magic tricks… but that’s where the compliments pretty much have to end because from top to bottom Magic Camp is a combination of boring and bad that barely holds up to even a passing thought. Sure, little kids might love it but little kids also deserve a better movie than this. They’re not going to care about the forced sentimentality or the interpersonal relationships between the adults, they’ll smile because there’s a cute bunny on the screen. I honestly just wish I could see what the version with Steve Martin looks like, maybe that version is the version that has jokes in it.