6 of the Best Summer Camp Movies

For many of us, attending summer camp was an annual ritual that filled our childhood summer vacations with activities like hiking, canoeing, fishing, and cookouts. However, even if your days of going to summer camp are long gone, you can still vicariously experience the mosquitoes, sunburns, pranks, and other summer camp fundamentals through one of the many movies that have been made about the experience. From the satirical and the crass, to the heartbreaking and the ridiculous, here are six movies that explore the summer camp experience in unusual ways.

6. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Set at a Jewish summer camp in the summer of 1981, this David Wain-directed film parodies many of the clichés seen in other classic camp movies from the 1980s. Although the film was a critical and commercial failure when it was originally released, it has since acquired cult status thanks to its all-star cast of up-and-coming comedians and its 1980s-era soundtrack. While the critics at Rotten Tomatoes give it a dismal 31 percent approval rating, the audience approval rating stands at 81 percent.

Written by Wain and Michael Showalter, the film stars many of the biggest names in comedy today, including Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Marguerite Moreau, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Christopher Meloni, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Zak Orth, A.D. Miles, and H. Jon Benjamin. Due to its enduring popularity, the film is getting a second life at Netflix as a eight-episode prequel series that will debut on July 31, 2015.

5. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Wes Anderson turned his eccentric eye on summer camp in this Academy Award-nominated film about a 12-year-old orphan boy who runs away from Camp Ivanhoe with his girlfriend in 1965. Moonrise Kingdom was widely praised by the critics and achieved an impressive $45.5 million total domestic gross despite its limited release, according to Box Office Mojo. The impressive ensemble cast includes Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jared Gilman, and Kara Hayward. Moonrise Kingdom currently has a 94 percent “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

4. Meatballs (1979)

This Ivan Reitman-directed film features Bill Murray in his first major film role. In the film, Murray plays Tripper, an unconventional counselor at a cut-rate summer camp. Although not as beloved as Reitman and Murray’s subsequent comedy film collaborations such as Stripes and Ghostbusters, Meatballs currently has a respectable 75 percent approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Also, who wouldn’t want to go to a camp run by Bill Murray?

3. Friday the 13th (1980)

Camp Crystal Lake summer camp is the setting for this low-budget slasher flick about a serial killer with a penchant for murdering amorous camp counselors. Although it was panned by the critics, this first installment in the long-running Friday the 13th franchise was a commercially successful film and made nearly $40 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo. Besides instilling a generation of moviegoers with a lifelong fear of lakeside summer camps, Friday the 13th is also notable for featuring Kevin Bacon in one of his earliest movie roles, proving that even summer camp movies aren’t immune from the six degrees of Kevin Bacon phenomenon.

2. SpaceCamp (1986)

This unlikely adventure film added a twist to the typical summer camp movie by shifting the setting into space. After five children enrolled in NASA’s summer space camp program are accidentally launched into orbit aboard a space shuttle, the disparate group of campers must pull together to return safely to earth. SpaceCamp stars Kate Capshaw as a camp counselor/NASA astronaut, while Tom Skerritt plays her flight controller husband. The campers are played by Tate Donovan, Kelly Preston, Lea Thompson, Larry B. Scott, and a young Joaquin Phoenix in his first movie role.

Unfortunately, the story of SpaceCamp had several unintentional parallels with the actual Challenger shuttle tragedy that happened only a few months before the film was released. As a result, SpaceCamp received many negative reviews from critics such as Roger Ebert who cited the shuttle disaster. “Our thoughts about the space shuttle will never be the same again, and our memories are so painful that ‘SpaceCamp’ is doomed even before it begins,” wrote Ebert.

1. Heavyweights (1995)

Long before Ben Stiller played a fitness-obsessed gym owner in 2004’s DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, he played a fitness-obsessed summer camp owner in this Disney comedy film directed by Steven Brill. Judd Apatow, who later gained fame as the director of hit comedy films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, co-wrote the film with Brill.

In the film, Stiller’s character takes over a weight loss summer camp from the previous kind owners. However, after forcing the campers into a strict regimen of exercise and diet, the campers start a rebellion. Keep an eye out for a young Kenan Thompson as one of the rebellious campers. Although Heavyweights failed to impress the critics, it has gained a loyal following of fans and it currently has a 79 percent audience approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

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