Summer Camp Island is Cartoon Network’s newest show from the mind of Adventure Time alum Julia Potts (also of Don Hertzfeld’s World of Tomorrow fame) that promises a new cartoon classic with its whimsical style, charming voice, and an earnest affinity for magic. The original short film SCI was based on (which premiered in 2016) featured the same protagonists Oscar the elephant and Hedgehog the Hedgehog, but drew criticism for the disproportioned maturity level the characters had in relation to the story. They were originally written as teenagers dealing with separation anxiety and love triangles simultaneously, thankfully they’ve been aged-down and the story works better devoid of the romantic subplot. The pilot’s style was a hard pill to swallow and would prove to be an acquired taste, but thanks to a well-timed migration of Adventure Time‘s crew SCI comes in with a familiar charm. The movements and designs fit right in with the best of Cartoon Network, and SCI’s modern illustrative quality feels reminiscent of old notebook doodles, adding a glimmer of childlike wonder to its aesthetic. Within the show’s first moments, there’s a sequence of the island’s magic displayed through teen witches, colorful creatures, and just about every inanimate object becomes animated all the sudden. It’s a visual smorgasbord akin to the Harry Potter series, wherein new students experience the wonder of Hogwarts for the first time.
I would say the only thing Summer Camp Island doesn’t do successfully is express summer vividly enough. The atmosphere lacks the enthusiasm of a sunny day full of promise, and instead evokes a sort of loftiness and tranquility. Take shows like Ed Edd n Eddy or Camp Lazlo for example, both had the excitement of summer imbued in their designs and in their narrative. Even a more recent example, Craig of the Creek (which doesn’t necessarily take place during summer), embraces that “seize the day” feeling and embraces the imaginative spirit that the summer months breathe. SCI is beautiful and dreamlike, but its desaturated tone is more of a delicate whisper of summer. That being said, Summer Camp Island is not held back by this criticism whatsoever. Visually, I was immediately overcome by a sense of familiarity I couldn’t put my finger on. It was like a trigger in my subconscious to reminisce over the stylings of Maurice Sendak illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are, the ink drawings of Ruth Krauss, and the delightful, soft color palette of classics like Snow White and Peter Pan. Other stylistic similarities like the Peanuts cartoons, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, and storybook illustrator Marcia Brown came to mind, but it never felt like an overt hodgepodge of any specific references. Its visual impact felt so surreal throughout its entirety, I constantly felt a familiarity to it as if a forgotten storybook from my childhood had been brought to life. Much of this is due to the beautiful work of art director Sandra Lee, whose scenery blends in with the characters seamlessly. The color design is like a delicate, ephemeral breeze, and the background details from the feathery outlines to the water that’s constantly sparkling make every frame feel magical.
The comedy of Summer Camp Island is really what buckled me in for the marathon, because it was so consistently funny I found myself genuinely chuckling multiple times during each episode. There are plenty of subtle visual gags, like a poster that simply says “Boy Band” or a cloud reading a book or even just a mushroom with a face in the background, these details work together to maintain SCI’s silliness. Where some cartoons feel simply passable as a comedy, SCI has a genuine comedic voice that finds surprising ways to express itself. Whether its a wisecrack from Susie (Julia Potts), who provides the sardonic edge to the show’s otherwise marshmallow-soft demeanor, or its a Kids Say the Darnedest Things-esque one-liner from the scene-stealing animated Pajamas (Naomi Hensen), the show proves itself to be more than a whimsical feast for your eyes. The show crafts a specific cadence to its comedy, contrasting its innocent, bubbly nature with an unexpected dose of dry wit. The comedic timing is sharp and sure of itself, and there’s a variety of characters with distinct personalities that play off of each other beautifully.
Which brings me to the characters, our main protagonists Oscar the elephant (Elliott Smith) and Hedgehog the hedgehog (Oona Laurence). Oscar takes the lead most of the time as Hedgehog rightfully serves as the foil to his timid, insecure personality. Oscar’s growth as a more outgoing and confident elephant develops steadily over the course of the first season. There are many times where the writers create situations where he rises above the complacency of fear and anxiety to become more confident and happy with improving himself, but they never force him into a position to act cooler than he is. There are moments where he proudly admits he gets scared “all the time” or that he doesn’t have “street cred” and he’s okay with it. Hedgehog is the more collected of the two, and the conflicts involving her are more situational, however there is an interesting development to her character at the tail end of the season. The relationship between Oscar and Hedgehog never feels like forced romance as we’ve come to expect from male/female relationships, they represent the purest form of deep, platonic love and its explored graciously. The show consciously subverts heteronormative tropes by providing plenty of sensitive boys and tough girls without drawing attention to those details. It even features gay ghost dads in one of its episodes (which I think is safe to say is a first) and non-binary characters in romantic relationships. It would be easier to write this off as a whimsical, light-hearted comedy if it didn’t commit to making these characters more complex and interesting. Susie, voiced by the creator herself, has proven herself to be a tough nut to crack and on top of it has a promising back story yet to be unraveled.
The premise of the show and the world it presents has yet to establish its own laws that could eventually create its own mythology, even the island itself is an enigma that could potentially take us on a journey into its dark recesses. I hate to keep comparing it to Adventure Time, but when Adventure Time first started no one would’ve expected it to take a turn as one of the most elaborate mythologies on television and to offer some of the most emotional backstories of beloved but initially one-dimensional characters like Ice King or Marceline the Vampire Queen. It’s impossible to predict a show’s trajectory only after the first season when only so much can be invested in its uncertain future, but Summer Camp Island is off to a great start. Summer Camp Island was such an enjoyable watch, its mission to create a world with lovable characters, fantastical elements, and a strong comedic voice was successful with each episode. I’m very excited to see where it goes and to see more from its characters.