Just nine months into its existence, and Disney+ original programming has already run the full gamut, from critically beloved series like “The Mandalorian” to theatrical cast-offs best left forgotten (sorry, “Artemis Fowl”). One piece of programming mostly missing so far: the kind of instantly forgettable original that would not have felt out of place premiering on the Disney Channel in the late ’90s or early aughts, family-friendly fare to fill a lazy Friday night. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, the lack of imagination on display in Mark Waters’ “Magic Camp” is almost more depressing than the incomprehensible weirdness of Kenneth Branagh’s YA flop. At least that film was trying for something.
The best warning of what’s to come arrives in the opening credits: the film comes from six screenwriters, and while many of the half-dozen scribes (not counting the two additional with only “story by” credits) it took to write “Magic Camp” are quite talented folk (top credited duo Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster most recently wrote the lovely “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Matt Spicer and Max Winkler are both rising filmmakers), little of that magic makes its way into this feature. Final credits don’t even include Steve Martin, who wrote the script’s first draft and was once attached to star in it; that’s how many cycles this screenplay has been through in just four years of existence.
A constant push and pull between characters and scenarios — Adam DeVine is top billed here, but “Magic Camp” opens with a focus on young Theo (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre), and then there’s the over-the-top showiness of Jeffrey Tambor as the camp’s wacky director — makes it difficult to nail down just what this whole thing is supposed to be about. Obvious moral lessons and a predictable plot help clear up the early confusion, while also lulling the film into a formulaic rut it never attempts to break out of.
The film, shot way back in 2017, was conceived of before Disney had even launched its streaming service and was originally intended to be a theatrical release. Various controversies — star Tambor became the subject of various harassment allegations just as the film was preparing to hit theaters in the fall of 2017 — pushed back its release until it landed on Disney+, where it arrives in the heat of long, boring, horrible summer.
Its concept isn’t a bad one, and summer camp comedies have long been a staple of kid-centric entertainment, from “Heavyweights” to “Camp Nowhere,” both iterations of “The Parent Trap” to Disney’s own broadcast hit “Camp Rock.” This time around, the motley crew of talented kids (and one good thing is clear: these kids are all talented) are being packed off to a camp where learning magic is the main event.
Theo loves magic, but has serious stage fright, possibly inspired by the death of his beloved dad (Aldis Hodge, appearing in many flashbacks), who introduced him to the craft. Judd (Josie Totah, appearing here as J.J. Totah, as the film was made before the young actress’ transition) is afraid of living up to parental expectations, too, as his father is a famous magician. Ruth (Isabella Crovetti) wants to do animal magic, but is scared to touch bunnies. Vera (Izabella Alvarez) is kind of a weirdo, Nathan (Cole Sand) is a hypochondriac geek. Together, they make up the Hearts cabin at Magic Camp (or, as Tambor’s Roy Preston glamorously calls it, The Institute of Magic). They’re a sweet, funny, motley crew, and it’s clear from the start that they will end up triumphing over all the wacky stuff thrown at them as they attempt to transform into real magicians.
And yet, the real transformation will have to come from the film’s ostensible lead: DeVine, as former magic whiz Andy Duckerman. Once the institute’s biggest star — he won both the Top Hat and the Golden Wand, the camp’s biggest competitions, and you better believe they play a major role in the film — personal upheavals crushed his dreams and he’s spent the past few years driving a cab in Vegas. This is, of course, played as its own tragedy, but it’s made worse by the fact that Andy’s former partner (in all senses of the word), Christina Darkwood (Gillian Jacobs) is the Strip’s biggest magician, and he has to see her face everywhere he goes.
Attempting to convince Andy to come back to camp as a counselor — Christina will be there, too! — takes up a surprising minimum of time. Basically, Roy asks, and Andy goes, cutting down on obvious drama and ensuring the film has plenty of time to really dig into what matters: a steady stream of montages that show Andy and the Hearts learning about a) magic, b) themselves, c) what really matters. The lessons of “Magic Camp” might be basic and wholly expected, but they’re still good ones, and as Andy (DeVine is significantly less frenetic here than in his other roles) starts to believe in his campers and they start to blossom, the film starts to tap into some welcome charm. It’s forgettable, but it feels sort of nice in the moment, like so many other Disney Channel originals that appear to have inspired this new iteration.
Less obvious, and far more necessary: the sort of humor fans of director Waters’ “Mean Girls” might have hoped to see in the film. While Waters’ tongue-in-cheek wit is on display sometimes — particularly in interactions between the nerdy Hearts and the rest of the camp’s cooler residents, plus a very funny gag about multiplying rabbits — the film mostly plays everything safe and straight. That’s hard to really ding, because this is, after all, a family-friendly feature about nice kids embracing their nerdiest passions. But why not get a little weird with it? Again, it’s about nice kids embracing their nerdiest passions, but “Magic Camp” can’t conjure up enough zing to put on the kind of show they deserve, something weird, something different, something even a little bit magical.
“Magic Camp” is now streaming on Disney+.