The Jurassic Park film series has spanned 27 years and five movies, with a sixth in production—but until now, it hasn’t spawned an animated TV spin-off. This feels like an uncharacteristic act of restraint for a property that has been winking at its own merchandising blitz since midway through the first 1993 film. Sure, the Jurassic movies are essentially creature horror designed to lure in kids on the cusp of PG-13 readiness and give them expertly rendered nightmares, but they’ve also inspired elaborate toy lines; anyway, everything from the R-rated RoboCop to the publicly rejected 1998 Godzilla has taken a shot at Saturday morning glory over the years. Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous arrives on the scene so late that Saturday morning cartoons are already extinct; it has to find a habitat on Netflix instead.
Despite its retro-sounding name (nonsensical pitch: It’s Camp Candy, but with dinosaurs!), Camp Cretaceous fits the model of the modern integrated multi-platform franchise. The eight-episode first season takes place during the events of Jurassic World, elsewhere in the reconstituted dinosaur theme park. One set piece from that Colin Trevorrow blockbuster even takes place in the distant background of a scene here. Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing does not appear, but counselors Roxie (Jameela Jamil) and Dave (Glen Powell) do talk about trying to get ahold of her. They don’t realize that at this stage of the film, Claire is still a child-hating monster; that must be why she never mentioned the campers during the film.
And yes, there is an actual camp in the middle of the Jurassic World theme park. Camp Cretaceous syncs up perfectly with its live-action cousin, not just in the details of its plot but how that plot’s momentum is sped up by pure, abject stupidity, far exceeding mere man-tampers-with-nature hubris. The camp’s testing phase involves bringing six kids to the island without their own guardians, giving them plenty of downtime, and instituting minimal security even after the counselors belatedly realize that young teenagers, left to their own devices, will go poke around the dinosaur cages. Lead character Darius (Paul-Mikél Williams) isn’t looking for trouble; he’s just over the moon about the opportunity to see the real-live dinosaurs he still obsesses over, earning the “dino-nerd” moniker the other kids stick on him. Camp Cretaceous isn’t especially astute in terms of teenage sociology, but it is clever about portraying the tween-to-teen age where a lot of kids find their dinosaur obsession diminishing. For family-related reasons that are gradually explained through flashbacks, Darius holds fast to his dream of exploring Jurassic World.
Darius wins a place at Camp Cretaceous through a video game competition; the other test-case slots go to Kenji (Ryan Potter), an older and annoyingly self-assured rich kid whose dad bought him into the camp; Brooklynn (Jenna Ortega), a young vlogger whose online clout means that she is the only camper allowed to bring her phone; Yaz (Kausar Mohammed), an athlete who has accepted corporate sponsorship from the park; Sammy (Raini Rodriguez), an enthusiastic farm girl; and Ben (Sean Giambrone), a nervous type who evinces no interest in being there at all.
The first few episodes of Camp Cretaceous unfold as if the series may take an episodic approach to the kids’ ill-advised misadventures. Halfway through, though, Jurassic World’s hell has broken loose, and the series switches to more or less continuous, movie-style storytelling. The pace picks up considerably—the seventh episode has several of the show’s best junior-level dino-attack set pieces—while also making the camp material seem even more half-assed. What makes this a camp at all, rather than a private tour? What would day-to-day operations look like if fearsome dinosaurs didn’t get loose in the middle of the campers’ stay, and if the kids weren’t constantly left to fend for themselves? The counselors don’t seem to know, and neither does the show—or rather, their answers are basically, “the stuff that happens in Jurassic World, but at different times with slightly different outcomes.” The writing occasionally tries to lampshade the utter irresponsibility of the counselors without quite making it into a functioning running joke; it’s just a lazy shortcut to the kids-on-an-adventure format the show obviously wants.
As that kind of an adventure, and as a kid-friendlier reskin of a Jurassic Park movie, Camp Cretaceous is mildly diverting. There are pleasing videogame-like simulations of more complex movie-style dinosaurs, including the token cute-dino baby ankylosaurus and the carnotaurus that becomes the group’s default nemesis. (Indominus rex is busy; he can’t be everywhere at once!) The computer-animated humans are trickier, by turns choppy and stiff-looking, though the refreshingly celebrity-light vocal performances are endearing. Occasionally, the show introduces a fresh element to its diet Breakfast Club dynamics, like how Brooklynn lives in fear of losing her audience and having her online popularity diminished by “angry internet randos.” The small ways Darius confronts his personal grief are sensitively handled.
At the same time, that storyline eventually imparts a “keep going” message of resilience that doesn’t exactly square with the parent movie’s thematic backbone, where dogged persistence turns into spectacular self-destruction. Camp Cretaceous doesn’t need to grapple directly with the conflicts between science, capitalism, and man’s inability to leave well enough alone. But it is strange to see a children’s show taking those conditions as a given, and repackaging them as the adventure of a lifetime despite a majority of the kids seeming to not give that much of a shit about dinosaurs in the first place. This is a better-looking, more carefully planned Jurassic spin-off than anything that would have been cash-grabbed into production in the mid-’90s. It’s also hard to picture future adults looking back on it with a combination of puzzlement and nostalgia. There’s no warping of the movie elements into bizarre kid-friendly shapes, which is particularly odd given that the parent movie already offered Blue The Trained Raptor. Instead, Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is more of a holding pen, where kids can wait for the next proper dinosaur movie to come out.