Since its first sequel, the “Jurassic Park” franchise has always tried to recreate the magic of Steven Spielberg’s film about a dangerous tourist attraction, and all the thrills that come from discovery, dinosaurs, and destruction. The Netflix animated series “Jurassic Park: Camp Cretaceous” shows that there’s still plenty of excitement to be mined in good, old fashioned “Jurassic Park” chaos, in which the big selling point here is that it’s animated, and features a group of teenagers. Most importantly, this TV-PG version (executive produced by Spielberg, Frank Marshall, and Colin Trevorrow), is extremely smart about how to expand the expected thrills to something that only looks as disposable as a Saturday morning cartoon. You just won’t get much that’s new, but then again, new is not exactly the biggest expectation from a franchise about tourists learning the same dangerous lesson.
The heroes of “Camp Cretaceous” are far more innocent than the adults who have played god in previous “Jurassic Park” movies; they’re just on the island of Isla Nublar for fun. “Camp Cretaceous” is the location of a special summer program, where a batch of teens are meant to have supervised, non-deadly fun seeing the dinosaurs up close, or even getting to zip-line over them. Our main hero in particular is self-proclaimed “dino-nerd” Darius (Paul-Mikél Williams), who wins a chance to be on the island after defeating a VR game about the park, thanks in part to the knowledge given to him by his dad. He joins people like the phone-fixated influencer Brooklynn (Jenna Ortega), the lonely and also rich Kenji (Ryan Porter), the exceedingly friendly Sammy (Raini Rodriguez), worrywart ben (Sean Giambrone) and the introverted Yaz (Kausar Mohammed). Their chaperones are Roxie (Jameela Jamil) and Dave (Glen Powell), two adults who are helpless to the chaos that unfolds when dinosaurs break loose. Such dinos include a speedy Carnotaurus, a towering Indominus Rex, a bunch of raptors, and even an adorable Ankylosaurus named Bumpy, oh my!
I was skeptical about much of this, as you might be—the kids seem like a standard bunch, and some of the jokes are especially corny, as if all trying to educate young viewers in cliches. On top of that, the animation is a bit stilted and, with an exception of the dinosaurs, overly smooth with its surfaces where a higher-budget project would have put more texture into skin, clothes, backdrops. But the action is great, with the sequences taking after the movies in the best ways. On top of that, the plotting leads the 22-minute episodes right up to a cliffhanger, making the choice of finding out what happens in the next episode a no-brainer.
It’s hard to dog on the animation when the story successfully won me over, especially in the attention that it gives to the teenagers. Like with Darius’ backstory with the loss of his father, or the genuine ideas of creating friendship, the series has an ability to sneak up on you. There’s a flashback with Darius and his father in episode four that’s a show highlight. And other teens have a moment in which a secret come to light, or they learn something about friendship, and it feels like a genuine moment.
It’s also in episode four that the show really kicks off, even though the previous ones have their own exciting set-pieces. The teens find themselves in a situation similar to the other movies—getting lost in this new world of dinosaurs—and the pacing gets even faster as they run for their lives in cleverly designed action sequences in a giant field, on water, or on a runway monorail. It could have been a movie, but you become grateful that this means there’s eight episodes of exciting chases and close-calls, meaning eight robust sequences of pure “Jurassic Park” indulgence. It also gets funnier too, like when the neurotic Ben tries to comfort his friends in a later episode by telling them, “I memorized the evacuation plan on the way over [to the island].” He, like the others, prove to be a fun variation on the typical Jurassic Park visitor.
“Camp Cretaceous” doesn’t shy from fan service, at least in the way that you’ll recognize a visual reference to a massive dinosaur popping out of the water looking to feast (as in “Jurassic World”) or another joke about a big pile of dino doo-doo, as in “Jurassic Park.” It reminded me of reading the junior novelizations for the “Jurassic Park” movies as a kid, which was like getting a slightly bloodless dosage of the real thing but without it feeling like a minor story—they were a great way to be in the cinematic world of Jurassic Park aside from just rewatching the films. The fun of “Camp Cretaceous” is similar, and worthy of the original trilogy in particular. And because of the care put into making it, it’s more special than just a spin-off.