Director: Mark Waters
Writers: Matt Spicer, Max Winkler, Gabe Sachs, Jeff Judah, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand
Cinematographer: Theo Van de Sande
Editors: Bruce Green, Robert Malina
Cast: Adam Devine, Jeffrey Tambor, Gillian Jacobs, Nathaniel Logan McIntyre
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Perhaps, if cable television were still a thing, Magic Camp would be the ideal film to watch when channel hopping. It would be broken in parts by advertisements, giving you enough time to take a breather from the silly playfulness in the film. And if your audience includes the traditional family, well, then it serves as a good distraction for children. Magic Camp, currently on Disney+ Hotstar, by no means, is a bad film but it is nothing more than a ‘time killer’ either.
Magic Camp sticks to the familiar formula children’s films often use — feel-good humour and puerile characters. At the centre of it is a summer-long magic camp or its unnecessarily formal moniker — ‘Institute of Magic.’ Children, of several age groups, apply for this. All they need is drive and desire for magic…or wealth. The kids, once on-base, are divided into four different houses meant to compete against each other in the camp’s final event. There will be one victorious house and one outstanding magician who receives a ‘Golden Wand.’ This setting is in some sketchy, amateur land between Harry Potter and Now You See Me. And of course, with only young blood. On paper, it sounds a bit nuts but on-screen, it’s considerably more believable.
There is nothing wrong with following the same, repetitive alchemy of films. Here, we see an adolescent Theo (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre) struggle with his skills and abilities. His stage fright (after his father’s demise) is an obstacle he must overcome before the grand finale. And he is guided by his jaunty house mentor Andy (Adam Devine). He, too, struggles with his messy reality. He’s a gifted magician but now, only a Las Vegas cab driver — and many magician contemporaries of his (back when he was young) are now wunderkinds. But this underdog-battles-personal-demons routine has been done way more originally and inventively before. Despite this film being a few days young, ideologically, it feels fossil-old. Most of the film ends up becoming mushy cliché.
The young comedy, however, doesn’t disguise itself as something deep and exploratory. And once you get past its banality and take on a pastel-tinted child’s persona, Magic Camp gets much more palatable. The story squiggles around card and costume tricks as Andy teaches his oddball soldiers magic. And it does manage to wring some child-like awe through that. They are fascinated and surprised by the art the same way we would have been, when their age. And the buddy-nerdy energy it possesses also helps propel the story. Theo’s bunkmate is a precocious mathematician and his crush, a young Houdini. These bubbly kids help create a gentle aura as miniature Danny Atlas’ and Alfred Borden’s.
Adam Devine is the When We First Met-Adam Devine here, too. His ambitions are a bit skewed but his heart’s in the right place. His character in the Netflix film was like that then, and his character is like that now. Even Gillian Jacobs’ character, as Kristina Darkwood (Andy’s ex who is an expert magician and also another house mentor), is a semi-resurrection of the role she played in Community. She has the air of self-reliance and independence but it’s all an ego trip. Devine is the endearing comic engine of the film, and for most of the time, he has enough torque to make it work. The script, though, does falter when the two, Andy and Kristina, interact. Their romantic and conflict-riddled backstory is too flaky for any kind of warmth and emotion.
It is a teensy bit bemusing that this story required eight writers; after all, it feels like the work of one. But once you relieve it of the burden of universal appeal and accept its kiddy-ness, the puppy-dough script may just work.