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Retro Movie Review: 1994's Camp Nowhere

I can't think of a better way to kick off Camp YesterYear than with a trip back to 1994 and the kid's comedy film Camp Nowhere!   

My Mom rented this movie on a whim one day.  She didn't come home with movies I hadn't asked for very often, and that's why this one sticks out in my mind so much.  She and I were home alone for the weekend because my Dad and older brother had gone on a fishing trip to Pennsylvania or somewhere.  She likely wanted to keep me preoccupied all weekend and came home armed with some rented VHS tapes from our local store, Dollar Video.  To be fair, it did the trick.

She went out to the store in the afternoon, and I can distinctly remember watching this film while I was home alone.  I was only 10 when Camp Nowhere came out in 1994, so I would have probably been 11 or 12 by the time this made it to VHS when Mom rented it for me.  I wasn't left home alone often at that age, so this would have been a fairly big deal to me then.   Did I find myself into mischief?  Nah.

I was a good boy this time, and I stayed on the couch watching Camp Nowhere.  I'd also guess that before the movie started, I made myself a bowl of Turkey Hill's Dutch Chocolate ice cream covered with Nestle Quick cocoa powder, as that was my snack of choice at the time.   When did Nestle's Quick become "Nesquick?"

I always wanted to go to a sleep-away summer camp as seen on Salute Your Shorts or the "real" camps in Camp Nowhere, but the closest I ever got was watching a summer camp from across the lake during our annual vacation in Maine.  It looked like fun, and I looked forward to hearing the sounds of the bugle carry across the water every night to bring the day to a close.

If I'm being honest with myself, I probably would have hated it.  I never liked being far from home, or other people, to be honest.  I always daydreamed about it, though.  The closest I ever got to going to any kind of camp was a few one-week sleep-away ice hockey camps.  But during those, I was worked to the bone and exhausted each day and never had a chance to be homesick.  I worked as a camp counselor for the town day camp for two summers after high school, and that was such a bad experience that it nearly ruined the whole camp thing for me.

Camp Nowhere was a lighthearted family comedy that featured a group of kids who rebelled against their parent's wishes to send them all to various summer camps.  Desperate to spend the summer doing whatever THEY wanted, the kids created a fictitious summer camp where they hid from their parents all summer.  In its advertising, the movie used the tagline ""No Parents.  No Counselors.  No Rules."  

This quirky movie made for youngsters hit theaters on August 26, 1994.  It starred Christopher Lloyd as Dennis Van Welker, Jonathan Jackson as Morris "Mud" Himmel, and Andrew Keegan as Zack Dell.  It's also noteworthy that this movie is the film debut of Jessica Alba.  Camp Nowhere was distributed by Buena Vista Pictures (Disney!)

The movie has become a beloved cult classic over the past decade or so, reminding viewers of the carefree days of summer in the 1990s.  I've often felt like my generation was the last to experience the last "feral" or "free range" summer.  We didn't have cell phones, pagers, or the internet in our pockets.  We'd go out in the morning, and there was no way to get a hold of us except to call other kids' parents and see if we were there.  We'd come and go, and it was just expected we'd come back at the end of the day.  We could be playing at the house next door or riding our bikes up by the middle school.  You just never knew what the day would bring.  We rarely checked in, and that seemed normal to everyone.  

After a full day, we'd talk on AOL Instant Messenger to the same people we spent all day with while we clogged our home phone lines with dial-up internet.  

I shudder to think of my daughter going out of contact today, but it was just normal back then.  The generation behind me all grew up with cell phones and high-speed internet.  I was a junior in high school when I got my first cell phone, and I had to wait until 9pm to make phone calls because the minutes were free, and I couldn't afford more than 60 "anytime" minutes a month.  Yeah, try explaining that to your kids.

We live in a sick world now, and children can't be "free range" anymore.  I guess it was always a sick world, and today we're just more aware of how sick its become.  Anyway, back to the movie... 

Camp Nowhere is what I'd call a true coming-of-age story that explores things like responsibility, independence, friendship, and youthful romance.  

The film starts as the four main characters, Morris "Mud" Himmel (Jonathan Jackson), Zack Dell (Andrew Keegan), Trish Prescott (Marnette Patterson), and Gaby Nowicki (Melody Kay) all find themselves dreading their dull summer plans.  Each one of them is being forced to attend a specialized summer camp chosen by their parents.  

On a walk home from school, the four devise a brilliant plan to create a fictional summer camp where they get to call all the shots without adults.  They soon realize they will need at least one adult to help them pull this scheme off.  Fortunately, Mud discovers a washed-up drama teacher named Dennis Van Welker (Christopher Lloyd) at the mall hawking spray cheese.  When the four pay him a visit the next day, they stumble into helping him pull the wool over a debt collector's eyes.  The debt collector, T.R. Polk (Michael Emmet Walsh), is a giant oaf of a man who says he's retiring soon and wants to keep a perfect record and wants to collect the missed payments on Van Welker's car.

The kids craftily blackmail Van Welker, threatening to call the debt collector back.  They also offer him $1,000 of the money their parents were going to spend on summer camps if he goes along with their scheme.  Before you know it, Van Welker is imitating a recruiting agent in various roles for different summer camps:  a computer professor for Mud, a drill sergeant for Zack, a Richard Simmons-esque fat camp counselor for Gaby, and a drama coach for Trish.  

Legendary actor Burgess Meredith makes a brief appearance selling the kids an old "miracle spa."  He says that hippies had turned it into a commune years ago for "sex, drugs, and debauchery."  

Van Welker smiles, sighs, and says that he remembers that fondly.   

The only problem with the place is that every day at the same time, the military flies fighter jets low overhead.

Soon, the word is out at school, and several other children want in.  When they arrive at the old commune, the buildings are either falling down or graffitied with flowers and peace signs.  Van Welker moves into the old cabin down by the lake and plans to not be seen or heard all summer.

Mud takes charge, establishing a rule that one letter must be sent home to parents each week so they don't get suspicious.  Other than that, there are no rules.

At the end of the first night, the group throws a big bonfire where they have one big unifying moment.  They throw scripts, diet food, workbooks, and combat boots into the flames in one big cathartic act of defiance of their parent's wishes.  As those symbolic items go up in flames, the real party begins.  

The summer wears on, and romantic interest grows between Zack and Trish.  Mud and Gaby eventually start to take on parental roles at the camp while awkwardly flirting.   Gaby prepares breakfast for the kids every morning, and Mud stays busy, ensuring their secret plans don't unravel.  

At the Fourth of July party, all sorts of dangerous activities occur without adult supervision.  Fireworks and explosives eventually cause Mud to get badly burned.  Van Welker takes him to see a Doctor, where we meet Dr. Celeste Dunbar (Wendy Makkena).  She's charmed by Dennis and agrees not to report the firework burn to the police.

Days later, Thomas F. Wilson (who played Biff Tannen in Back to the Future) shows up as Police Officer Elliot Hendricks to investigate a report of loud music and unruly kids in the area.  Van Welker fakes a contagious disease and scares Officer Hendricks away quickly.

The kids grow bored as the summer wears on, and some even want to go home.  Mud and Gaby begin to question the "best summer of their life," wondering why they end up doing all the work around camp.  Gaby suggests it's because they are geeks and, deep down, just good kids.

Later, Mud leads a meeting to get kids on the same page so they can keep their stories straight with the parents.  No one is paying attention, and Mud snaps, quoting everyone's mother:  "You're gonna put someone's eye out with that!"  Feeling isolated and frustrated, he walks off to sulk.  

Gaby comes to cheer him up, and the two make a pact that when they become the cool kids, they will go out with each other... or at least ex-geeks like themselves.  Clearly, the two are into each other but too nervous to come to terms with it.  They awkwardly hold hands for a few seconds before moving on to other things.  

The doctor arrives unannounced a few days later.  Van Welker comes clean and begs her not to say anything because there are less than two weeks left to summer, and somehow, she agrees.

The parents all get the itch to visit their children at the same time, and Mud comes up with a plan.  The kids all work to clean up camp for the next several days.  They clear out the garbage, give each building a fresh coat of paint, and plant new gardens. 

Parent's Day soon arrives, and the kids are stationed in Van Welker's cabin.  They've turned into a fancy-looking control room with a detailed time schedule, whiteboard, video monitors, and radio equipment.  Up first is Zack's military boot camp.  Fake artillery fire gets Zack's Dad hiding in a foxhole, too terrified to leave.  The camp quickly switches to drama camp, fooling the parents with well-timed, rehearsed skits and special effects.  Even Trish's parents are pleased.

Next is "fat camp," as Christopher Lloyd impersonates Richard Simmons once again.  Gaby is busy making meals in the kitchen when her Mom, who wasn't supposed to be attending, arrives and surprises her.  She raves about the weight her daughter has lost at camp to the point of awkwardness.  Honestly, the young girl cast for Gaby was never overweight, even by 1990s standards.

At "computer camp," Mud's parents watch as they use a video game to pretend they hacked into the government's defense system and launched nuclear missiles.  Slyly using the daily fighter jet flyover, the parents are entirely fooled.

Mr. Polk finds his way into camp and inadvertently discovers the kids all celebrating their successful scam.  The jig is up, and the police soon arrive in large numbers to clear the camp and arrest Van Welker.

Mud slips out during the police interrogation to tip off Dennis.  How Mud was able to walk past the police and have a long conversation with Van Welker without them following is astonishingly unbelievable, even in a film that requires you to suspend disbelief for much of it.

Doctor Celeste shows up as Dennis drives away and says she's not surprised a man like that took off without accepting responsibility.  However, Van Welker surprises them back at camp by turning himself in.  

Mud doesn't want to let Van Welker take the fall and claims responsibility for the whole idea.  Zack stands beside him, and before you know it, every kid stands up to take responsibility.  Mud uses a great line: "Just because I'm smart doesn't mean I can't act stupid from time to time."  

Ain't that the truth.

In typical 90s family movie fashion, that's good enough for the cops, and they let everyone go free, no questions asked.  The kids have grown up and learned responsibility, and the parents have realized they were wrong to force their kids into doing something they didn't want to do.

In the end, Mud gives the rest of his money to Mr. Polk, who retires happy with his perfect record.  Van Welker and Doctor Celeste are dating, and Zack decides not to drop out of school.  He and Trish start making out and are interrupted by her Dad.  As Trish leaves, she kisses Mud goodbye to thank him for a great summer.  

Gaby sees this and gets upset, asking about their promise to date only ex-geeks.  Mud fumbles for an answer, but the two kiss as the film ends.  

Mud reminded me of someone throughout the movie, and as it finished, I finally figured out who that was:  Jonathan Taylor Thomas.  The hair, voice, and the clothes were all very similar.  Much like Gaby was a poor casting choice for an overweight girl, Mud was a wrong casting choice to play the geek.  I'm not saying they were terrible actors or didn't deserve the role; they were just a poor fit for what the character was supposed to be.   

In the end, the saying "all's well that ends well" plays here.  The parents don't press charges, the nerd gets his girl, and everyone goes home happy.  

As was typical for the 90s Disney movie, Camp Nowhere explores the idea that children have much to teach adults about life.  The campers in the film create a world free from adult interference, yet in the end, inadvertently teach the grown-ups several important life lessons.  

The parents are initially shocked and angry about their children's defiance but ultimately understand the importance of allowing the kids room to make choices and learn from their mistakes and experiences.  

Camp Nowhere didn't achieve financial success upon its release.  It only earned $10.4 million at the box office before leaving theaters three and a half weeks later.  It has a 17% critics score on the Rotten Tomatoes film review website, with a fan score of "B."

The Washington Post's Hal Hinson gave it a positive review, calling it a "celebration of kid power... Sweet, likable, and even vaguely hip."  However, Brian Baker of the Austin Chronicle gave it 2 of 5 stars and said that "it depends mostly on Lloyd's crazy characters to hold the narrative together."  "No kid is going to buy into a movie that revolves around a geek that isn't much of a geek and a fat girl that isn't fat."  

SEE!  I'm not the only one who noticed!

The appeal of this movie today continues to lie in its ability to transport viewers back to their own childhood summers.  The 90s nostalgia and charming, relatable characters have made it a cult favorite amongst people of my generation, with fans often revisiting it for its nice message and tame humor.  It offers a family-friendly, light-hearted comedy that captures the carefree spirit of summer during the 1990s.  Nostalgia for the 90s aside, it's a good kid's movie with entertaining characters and a unique premise, no matter how far-fetched.  

Camp Nowhere was released on VHS on June 6, 1995, and released on DVD in August 2003.  The movie was again released in October 2011 on Blu-ray.  In 2018, Camp Nowhere was rereleased in a multi-format edition, with both Blu-ray and DVD in the same case.  Currently, as of writing (June 2023), Camp Nowhere is streaming on Disney Plus.