Disney has long strived to be synonymous with magic. Leaning way into the enchantment and allure that the word suggests across its arsenal of films, theme parks, television networks, toy lines, video games, cruises, and now streaming services, the multibillion-dollar mass-media company’s latest sleight of hand is making titles spontaneously appear on Disney+. With the posters lined up across the homepage resembling playing cards, it’s easy to miss Magic Camp placed inconspicuously alongside a slew of live-action remakes, children’s programs, cinematic universes, and 20th Century Fox acquisitions. The studio is well aware that this innocuous family comedy isn’t going to be viewers’ first choice when the time comes to draw from the deck, but they also don’t seem to care all that much. Completed in 2017 and unceremoniously released online after a long-delayed theatrical run, Mark Waters’ Magic Camp plays out like the oldest trick in the book — one that needs to be retired.
Following a title sequence composed of pictures and clips of some of the most notable illusionists throughout history, we are introduced to Theo (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre): a young tween and aspiring magician with an affinity for the kind of close-up tricks he once did with his late military father (Aldis Hodge). Although his family name isn’t famous like Houdini’s or Copperfield’s, Theo still hopes to one day land the kind of residency afforded to contemporary magicians like Kristina Darkwood (Gillian Jacobs). Step one on this journey to success is admittance to the Magic Institute (don’t call it magic camp), a retreat for kids with the same dream. As it turns out, Theo’s dad filled out an application in his son’s name before his death. What’s more, Theo is actually accepted for the final session of the season.
Meanwhile, sitting in the driver’s seat of a rideshare, another (much older) magician also receives an invite to the Magic Institute. Andy (Adam Devine) has spent the past several years in Vegas transporting tourists to and from shows ever since splitting with his former partner-slash-girlfriend. (Who just happens to be Kristina Darkwood herself.) Andy has never shied away from bitterly complaining about how far he’s fallen and how unimpressive he finds the hit performer he used to know. When his former mentor and Magic Institute head Roy Preston (Jeffrey Tambor) asks Andy to fill a counselor position abandoned by David Blaine, he reluctantly agrees. This is partly because he has a genuine interest in imparting his wisdom to the next generation of talent, but mainly it’s because the gig will put him shoulder-to-shoulder with his ex. Assigned to a loveable group of misfits that includes Theo, Andy has a lot of work ahead of him if his group wants to clinch the annual Golden Wand competition on the final night of camp.
These two threads, although somewhat connected, feel at odds with one another. Andy’s redemption arc and Theo’s origin story constantly compete for the spotlight, feeling like a tug-of-war whenever one storyline is developing further than the other. In addition, many of the fringe characters have also had their narratives significantly truncated, with plot points often feeling rushed or skipped over entirely for the sake of the co-protagonists. This unbalanced and inconsistent pacing might have something to do with the film’s six screenwriters and four story credits, a sign that points to substantial rewrites and mid-production tinkering. One would think that with the involvement of Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster — who wrote the script for the tremendously moving A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) — Magic Camp would at least have a solid structure going for it. Sadly, this is not the case.
Blame it on the mess of a screenplay or the simple fact that this material is pretty far below them, but Magic Camp manages to squander the talents of three established comedians all at once. Tambor (in a role filmed almost a year before sexual-harassment allegations were filed against him in November 2017) gets to goof off a bit at the start, appearing in Theo’s acceptance video and Andy’s cab in Vegas, before being reduced to nothing more than a voice heard over the camp’s morning announcements. Jacobs, a serious talent on shows like NBC’s Community (2009-15) and Netflix’s Love (2016-18), is barely given anything to work with here. The story calls for her to be a threatening foil to Andy, but she’s hardly even a character, let alone a menacing on-screen presence. Devine, fresh off of his stint on Comedy Central’s Workaholics (2011-2017), fills a role that could have been played by anyone. It’s a lighthearted film, to be sure, but none of these comics ever get to be truly funny.
If this is any indication of what the future of Disney+ will look like, then the service’s prospects are dim. Magic Camp has the visual qualities and the emotional heft of a Disney Channel Original Movie, with a few real stars thrown in. (Perhaps every generation receives the Now You See It ... they deserve?) All in all, it’s too dull to hold the attention of kids and too uninspired to keep any parents committed to this unfortunate family-movie-night pick. Although it might earn a little credit for not being spawned from a pre-existing property, it’s strange to consider that this was ever intended for global theatrical rollout. Is the demand for a comedy about close-up magic and nifty card tricks really that high? Certainly not, or Walt Disney Pictures wouldn’t have pulled it from their calendar, held onto it for two-and-a-half years, and then dropped it quietly in the middle of their bleakest summer on record. If only they’d charged $29.99 to stream the film, as they’re planning to do for Mulan (2020), they just might’ve been able to recoup their playing-card budget.
Magic Camp is now available to stream from Disney+.