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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
"Nobody changes at summer camp. They just find out who they are and become it more."
DVD ReviewIf you've got fond memories of summer camp, a screen comedy about the experience usually feels like preaching to the choir. (I plead guilty, having logged nine summers as camper and counselor.) If you spent your summers as a kid in some other manner, camp stories probably seem just lethally boring, snot-nosed little kids packed off for so many weeks by their parents who cannot stand them and are grateful for the respite. Whatever the case, it's ripe movie material, and Happy Campers offers some pretty funny stuff. Meatballs remains the Citizen Kane of summer camp comedies, and this one doesn't climb to those heights, but it still has some good things to offer.
(I think indirectly it also provides some keen insights into the ways of movie studio politics. New Line is releasing this title straight to video, but it's certainly better than some of the garbage I've paid to see at the multiplex; I don't know for sure, but my hunch is that this was a project closely associated with Michael De Luca, the ousted studio head who also has an executive producer credit on this movie. Out with the old, in with the new, regardless of quality.)
Welcome to Camp Bleeding Dove, led by the deeply unstable Big Chief Oberon, played by Peter Stormare (last seen feeding a body into a woodchipper in Fargo), who favors campfires stories about cannibalism and sodomy. Sleep well, children! Happy Campers concentrates on the ragtag bunch of counselors, horny glorified babysitters at best, and when Oberon gets struck by lightning, the lunatics are pretty much running the asylum. Most of the movie is about the counselors hooking up and pairing off; they're led by cool dude Wichita (Brad Renfro), the boy who pushes the buttons for all the girls. His college pal Talia (Emily Bergl) has come to camp hoping finally to spark some romantic interest from him, but he's got his eye on Wendy (Dominique Swain), the impossibly peppy one who likes to shout out: "Isn't fun great?" Lots of screen time is devoted to the Wendy/Wichita romance, and while the whole camp is gripped by wondering if the good girl will finally get together with the bad boy, the same can't be said of the audience. More fun is Pixel (James King), who tantalizes the boys by swimming naked, teaches the girls how to strip, and pretty much for the sake of fun, even puts the moves on shocked little Wendy: "Are you a lesbian, or what are you, Pixel? " "I don't know," she answers, "I didn't realize I had to declare a major."
The movie has an obvious structure, beginning when the kids arrive, ending when they get back on the buses forty days later, and all the action is about the wackiness that ensues during those weeks away. The writer/director is Daniel Waters, who wrote Heathers, and he retains his keen ear for dialogue peppered with what may be slightly dated pop culture references. When the sexual preference of one of the counselors becomes public knowledge, for instance, he decries being ostracized: "Oh, so that's it, so now I'm The Gay Guy? I'm to be avoided like a Spandau Ballet tribute album." Less attention is lavished on the campers, though a couple of them are memorable, especially Epileptic Eve, who can fake a fit at will, and Don't Touch Me Todd, who, as you might guess, recoils at any physical contact: "You touched me. YOU TOUCHED ME. Don't touch me. Why did you touch me?"
There are enough funny things here, but you get the sense either that the movie was hastily edited or sloppily recut, as its story sputters forward in fits and starts, and it goes down no shortage of narrative dead ends. Characters materialize out of nowhere for convenience's sake, and events are alluded to and then never followed through on—the principal instance of this is parents' visiting day, one of the obvious comic setups that is discussed but then isn't taken advantage of. There's also way too much voice-over narration, provided by almost all of the characters; it's doubly confusing in that vocally it's awfully difficult to distinguish between the actors, so there's all this talk coming at you, and you're not always certain just who is doing the talking. It can be a pretty arbitrary affair, but if you're looking for a movie featuring characters being pelted with water balloons made from lubricated condoms, your search is over, friend.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: The cinematography isn't glorious, but if your TV is big enough, the widescreen option is the way to go; the panning and scanning frequently lops off the tops of people's heads and bisects them vertically down the nose, one eye on screen, the other off. Palette is adequate if a little gooey, and a good amount of debris and scratches show up on the print.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: There's nothing quite like the anarchy of a mess hall food fight in Dolby Digital 5.1, the audio track of choice. Things are pretty well balanced, with a certain amount of hiss; the stereo track is workmanlike, but it's not an audio-effects-driven movie, so it should do just fine for you.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Extras Review: This release was apparently done on the cheap, as the lack of extras and the spindly case it comes in indicate.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsSome funny bits and sharp dialogue aren't really enough to recommend Happy Campers, though it's the kind of movie you're better off watching with that six pack you hid in the lake than over toasted marshmallows and smores. If you've been to camp, you'll probably laugh with recognition at more than a couple of things here, but all in all it's not much of a response to that tried and true first day of school essay, How I Spent My Summer Vacation.
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