A Review by Mark McLeod
June 2nd 2002
I'm a firm believer that there are two types of people. The people who think Summer camp sounds like fun and people who think sleeping in the middle of a forest in a log cabin is a dumb idea. I fall in with the latter crowd having never seen the appeal of bonding with a bunch of people outside for any length of time regardless of if it's a few hours or a few days. My sister is the total opposite as up until recently she couldn't get enough of the camp experience sometimes going to two or three different ones each summer. My high school had this camp ritual where all the eighth graders would go for a three days during the first week of the October to prepare for the next step of our so called lives. Despite all sorts of pressure from my guidance counselor I skipped that and opted for three days off school. To this day the only time I can remember voluntarily sleeping in a cabin was when I was eight or nine and I went to Beavers camp which is the Canadian equivalent of Scouts. I think I enjoyed it but I was too young to really know any better. I now know that I'm not the outside type person as hiking and camping rank right up there with going to the dentist. Still I've always been curious about what actually happens at camp because you hear all these stories about how camp is the best time in a young person's life.
It's summer and it's time once again for 40 days and 40 nights of crazy summertime fun for the campers and staff at Camp Bleeding Stone. Camp director Oberon (Peter Stormare) has assembled an eclectic bunch of counsellors to look after the kids who are now under his watchful eye. There's Wendy (Dominique Swain) the perky blonde whose love for the job is almost sickening, Talia (Emily Bergl) the ultra shy girl who followed her college crush slacker Wichita (Brad Renfro), Adam (Jordan Bridges) the hard-ass gym teacher in training type. Also along for the ride are Donald (Justin Long) the smart geeky guy and Jasper (Keram Malicki-Sanchez) the mysterious one and last but not least Pixel (James King) a free spirited hippy straight out of the 1970s. Together their different personalities are forced to mesh together to provide an entertaining and exciting environment for the kids. The first few days are filled with routine problems like as a girl who constantly sleepwalks, a kid named Todd (Cliff Moore) who refuses to let anyone touch him, a girl who goes into epileptic shock at random times and a bunch of rowdy boys and girls with hormones that are about to burst. The kids however aren't the only ones with love on their minds as Talia tries to tell Wichita how she feels but Wichita is already smitten with Wendy. Adam's interested in Pixel and Donald is torn between all three of the female staffers. A few days into camp Wichita and Wendy are caught fooling around and the whole camp is put on lock down. Our two lovers escape their cabins and go to the forest for a romantic meeting. Oberon senses something is up and goes to stop then but before he can is struck by lightning leaving him unable to speak or run the camp. Wendy takes over as the de facto leader and for a few days manages to have things under control. However one person can only have control for so long as relationships evolve and things to begin to change. Then one day when they least expect it a hurricane hits the camp and causes the characters to begin to reflect on their lives and experiences at Camp Bleeding Stone.
"Happy Campers" was a film that I was looking forward to see for a number of reasons the biggest of which was the cast of young up and coming actors and actresses. I kept looking for the film on theatrical release schedules but it never appeared and once again when I had almost forgotten about it a DVD release was announced. Is the film worth all the wait? The answer is a resounding yes. "Happy Campers" is a quirky and dark comedy that has more going for it then appears on the surface. There's no arguing that the plot and story lines have been set in any number of different locations throughout the years but where this film succeeds is in it's portrayal of the institution known as summer camp. The summer camp movie isn't new to Hollywood but this approach certainly is. All the summer camp movies I've seen have been sort of a parody taking things to the total extreme in hopes of providing laughs. "Campers" on the other hand comes across as more of a tribute to the camp crowd. "Heathers" writer and first time director Daniel Waters crafts a witty and extremely funny picture that has some of the sharpest most insightful dialogue I've heard in a teen film. In a genre that's plagued by poor dialogue to have the film's writing being one of it's strong aspects it really shows the strength of the writer. The characters although stereotypical are actually developed to a decent degree and appear to have a basis in reality. Waters also knows how to pace the film as spends just the right amount at the start of camp, in the middle of camp and at the end of camp so that the film never begins to drag or wear out it's welcome.
The cast of "Happy Campers" is made up of a bunch of young Hollywood actors and actresses who have varied levels of acting experience but all have a fair amount of talent. In the lead role of Wendy we have Dominique Swain who is best known due to the controversy surrounding her portrayal of Lolita in Adrian Lyne's 1997 remake. Swain who was 14 at the time is now all grown up though she keeps playing teenager type roles. As Wendy she get's her first real chance at doing comedy and she shines. A character like her's could easily come across as dumb and annoying but Swain injects a certain something into the role that prevents this from happening. The male lead goes to Brad Renfro star of the recent bomb "Deuces Wild" and he does an adequate job as Wichita the ultra cool hip kid who doesn't have a care in the world. Renfro has never really impressed me in a role and though he doesn't quite do it here either this is a step in the right direction for him. James King who was a bright spot in Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" brings the hippie Pixel to life with her unique point of view and her unorthodox teachings. King's performance here makes me forget that she was in the dreadful "Slackers" a film which is complete opposite of this one. Astute movie fans might also recognize the actress who plays Talia as Emily Bergl from the dreadful "The Rage : Carrie 2". Bergl doesn't seem to have grown much as an actress but at least this time the film she's in not an poor attempt to cash in on a popular franchise. Also along for the ridge is Justin Long from "Jeeper's Creepers" and TV's "Ed" who plays the geeky/sensitive guy Donald. Long's character here reminded me briefly of his character in"Crossroads" but thankfully the feeling passed by quickly. In terms of actors above the age of 25 we have Peter Stormare who I really enjoyed in "Armageddon". Stormare's camp director Oberon is a wacky and wild character which is to be expected from the veteran actor.
If "Happy Campers" is such a good feature film then one might ask why it's going direct to video after sitting on the studio shelf for the better part of a year?. Good question and it's one that I'll try to answer. The film is essentially aimed at the core group of kids who go to summer camps which ranges from age 8 to 14 and the counselors who staff them who fall in 16-19 range. That said the film has been given an "R" rating which would limit the audience to those over the age of 17. Since I'd say a big part of the films demographic is under the age of 17 the returns at the box office would have lessened considerably. The "R" rating is due to some of the film's content which has to do with minors in situations you normally wouldn't see them in. I'm not talking as much about nudity (there is none) or violence or even language as the film is rather tame in all three of those areas. The big thing is the examples the counsellor characters especially James King's Pixel are providing to their younger campers. It's nothing shocking or upsetting and it's played for laughs and not shock value but the MPAA doesn't seem to get this point.
"Happy Campers" is a fun film that I'm glad will finally have a chance to be seen even if it's only in the comforts of your own home. It really is a smart teen comedy that dares to be different and succeeds. It's a breath of fresh air injected into the tired Summer camp sub genre where gross out comedies and parody films have roamed free for so many years. Daniel Waters resists the urge to go for the cheap laugh and I for one am happy he does. It's got sort of an independent type feel to it but without that the film would probably be lost somewhere in the mediocre middle. Water's takes chances that a large studio may not have been willing to. The end product is a film that I'll watch time and time again. Lead by a strong cast, a great script and a director whose not afraid to go out on a limb. "Happy Campers" is a film that should find it's audience on DVD and nothing would make me a happier camper. Recommended.
Movie Rating : 8/10
VIDEO: It's always a pleasure to review a title from New Line Home Entertainment as one can almost always be assured of an excellent video transfer that meets or exceeds a set of standards that goes unrivaled by many of the other studios. "Happy Campers" while certainly not perfect in any way still hits the minimum level of quality that one expects from a New Line release. This dual layered release contains both a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and a 1.33:1 pan and scanned version of the film. Being a stark believer in the fact that films should only be viewed as they were originally intended to be seen I chose the widescreen version. "Happy Campers" was shot on a rather small budget but one wouldn't know it by looking at the film which has a very professional look courtesy of the film's cinematographers. The transfer contains a nice amount of detail and is sufficiently sharp although there are a few short segments where things are a bit soft. Given the film's setting of a summer camp the film keeps the color tones restrained choosing to go for the natural approach except for a few interior scenes which seemed to be shot with a blue tint to them. The transfer also does a good job during a number of scenes that take place in low light situations inside the cabins. Low light scenes can often be problematic but thankfully New Line does a good job handling them by providing just the right amount of brightness and contrast which makes it easy to make out the character's actions without causing a washout. In terms of problems there aren't really all that many to report as the print used for the transfer is in exceptional shape. This is to be expected since the film is going the direct to video route there shouldn't be any marks from being mishandled or put through a projector. There is some moderate grain in a couple scenes but it doesn't reach a point where it causes a major problem. Also taking away from the video transfer ever so slightly are some trace amounts of pixelation and edge enhancement. Aside from a few minor annoyances New Line has done yet another excellent job on this transfer.
Video Rating : 8.5/10
SOUND: New Line presents "Happy Campers" with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The film finds itself in the teen comedy genre one's that's certainly not known for it's creativity. "Happy Campers" doesn't come close to changing things but it does do a bit more then expected in terms of providing an audio experience. Now don't get me wrong the film is still first and foremost a dialogue driven affair but their is some moderate and occasionally refreshing ambience that can be heard from the rear speakers. Aside from the aforementioned ambience and the occasional musical cue and odd sound effect most of the action remains up front. The only real exception to this would be the film's main action scenes involving a lightning storm and a hurricane which bring the viewer into the middle of a storm with wind gushing, lightning flashing and thunder pounding through the sub woofer channel. In terms of music the score by Rolfe Kent is presented well and fills the room on occasion. Dialogue is easily heard and is never overshadowed by the other aspects of the mix. From a technical standpoint everything about this soundtrack is fine but there just isn't anything to make it stand out from the pact. However it still provides an enjoyable listening experience and that's what's important.
Audio Rating : 8/10
EXTRAS: This is another one of New Lines direct-to- video releases that doesn't include any bonus materials.
Extras Rating : 0/10
Final Thoughts: "Happy Campers" is a film that deserves to be seen and since it skipped the theaters and is going direct to video there is no better way to do so then with this DVD. New Line Home Entertainment provides the film with an excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer and an enjoyable Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. Sadly there aren't any bonus materials but that shouldn't hold you back from either renting or purchasing the DVD. Hopefully word of mouth will build and allow this film to be the cult classic it deserves. Recommended.
Disc Rating : 7/10
The Film ***