On the first day of summer camp, Oscar already wants to leave. In his own words, the 11-year-old elephant feels “kinda nervous when there’s a lot of things happening at the same time.” There is a lot to adjust to once his parents drop off Oscar and his best friend, Hedgehog (who is, unsurprisingly, a hedgehog), at the campground.
Oscar was excited about the many “organized activities” promised to him in the camp’s pamphlet; he expected to spend the summer adventuring in nature, canoeing, or making crafts with his best friend. But that’s not the full picture — the camp counselors turn out to be witches, magic apparently is real, and Oscar’s summer is about to look much more otherworldly than what he originally planned for.
Oscar tries not to get overwhelmed despite these major revelations and his related anxiety, but when he embarrasses himself at a pajama party in front of new acquaintances, he’s done giving this camp a shot. In truth, Oscar has been looking for an out even before he’s arrived (and the shark-cum-therapist living in the pool behind his cabin is quick to tell him as much). What he’s really anxious about is the newness of being away from home for the first time, not the strangeness of everything else. (Although that part certainly doesn’t help matters.)
At the end of the first episode, Oscar (by way of a magic tunnel) leaves for home and arrives just outside his front door. When he overhears his parents inside discussing his tendency toward discomfort, he’s reminded that if he lets himself adjust to something new, he’ll eventually start to love it. He decides to stay, and thus his magical summer begins.
Summer Camp Island — and Summer Camp Island, where all of this takes place — is full of these types of small, revelatory wisdoms. Each life lesson is nestled into a colorful place inhabited by various magical creatures: There are aliens that look like cutesy gremlins, friendly monsters, music-loving elves and werewolves, and even a talking moon (voiced by Cedric the Entertainer!). The result is a lovely slice-of-life cartoon that offers the perfect jolt of happiness in a difficult world.
Originally airing its first season on Cartoon Network between 2018 and 2019, Summer Camp Island moved to HBO Max for its second season this past June; its upcoming third season premieres December 10. On the surface, this cute, magical cartoon might seem cut from the exact same cloth as other Cartoon Network shows, namely the beloved Steven Universe and Adventure Time.
All three combine unconventional characters with fantasy elements and coming-of-age storytelling, with a dash of surreal humor to boot. However, creator Julia Pott (who previously worked on Adventure Time) has imbued Summer Camp Island with its own, singular vision that stands out among many shows within its genre. This is a show that tells beautiful tales of friendship and adolescence, always focusing on the importance of togetherness and the whimsy, even sadness, of growing up. If PEN15 is restorative for adults, Summer Camp Island is restorative for the kids still in all of us.
I discovered Summer Camp Island after its move to streaming, and it became one of my first pandemic-summer TV obsessions. I was immediately drawn-in by Oscar, his sensitivity, his fear of the new — it felt like I was watching myself as a young kid, similarly wracked with anxiety. I also felt like I was watching myself now, though, refracted through this frightened 11-year-old. I, too, struggle to adjust to change while yearning for fun and frolicking outside. I found myself delighting in how Oscar not only adjusts but thrives in a novel setting. I wanted this for myself; I couldn’t get enough.
After finishing all 60 episodes in short order, I still find myself returning to the series often, its jeweled colors and insistence on platonic friendship as a balm to everything, a comforting escape from the news.
Most of the show’s conflicts — which run the gamut from returning an overdue VHS tape to helping two aliens wed despite planetary laws against their union — are solved within each episode’s bite-sized, 12-minute runtime, and the people involved always come away as better friends in the end. Someone develops a new skill or learns a new lesson, and the campers will go on to return to their personal cabins each night, Oscar’s and Hedgehog’s right next to one another. This may sound formulaic, but I always find it to be a pleasure to watch these friends make up and reaffirm their affection for each other.
Another pleasure of the show is the art; Summer Camp Island is as wonderful to just look at as it is to watch. Our animal campers dress in hipster human clothes: cropped pants, sweatshirts and layers, clean collars and tube socks, cute shoes. The campers and counselors all exhibit a range of expressions, the whites of their round eyes like huge crescent moons waxing and waning against their enlarged pupils.
The looks on these characters’ faces alone help contribute to the series’ pervasive sense of wonder. Many episodes showcase new, beautifully designed parts of the island or magical possibilities, doubling as an evolution in storytelling and an exhibition of the creative team’s imaginations. (In one episode, a counselor-witch turns a daddy long legs into a “cutie long legs,” the spider gaining a top hat and cane, jigging on the bookshelf.)
As much as the show is about the fun shenanigans the kids get into at camp and watching them come to beautifully designed life, Summer Camp Island is at its best when it is literally putting its central friendship against the test of time. Oscar and Hedgehog have been friends since they were in diapers, and even now, at age 11, each one considers the other “the coolest person in the world.”
But in the season one episode “Fuzzy Pink Time Babies,” Hedgehog’s dad wants her to leave early in order to attend “business camp,” so the two use magical moon rocks to freeze time to turn one night into a whole summer. The show literally manipulates time to portray the strength of friendship, a playful and always moving trick.
Several other episodes play with time and space in this way: In “Cosmic Bupkiss,” Oscar and Hedgehog pledge to see a comet together that only passes by once every 50 years, and the surprisingly emotional “Midnight Quittance” bends time and affirms that our two protagonists’ best friendship will last until their old age. Whatever may have happened between now and then, they discover, Oscar and Hedgehog are fated to find a way back to each other. At one point during the episode, Hedgehog reads aloud pages from a book called the “Tome of Time.”
“Time is lonely, that’s why it never leaves us,” Hedgehog reads. “That’s why it shows up on our faces and in our trees.” It’s a moment of clarity that betrays the youth of its characters, showcasing wisdom well beyond their apparent years — a common, poignant theme of the show. Despite these philosophers being preteen, anthropomorphized animal campers, they manage to connect with the show’s human viewers in ways profound and moving.
At summer camp, Oscar isn’t only spending time with friends, old and new. He’s growing with them. Just as his adventures push him beyond his initial expectations, the series has a few tricks up its sleeve for the audience, too. On Summer Camp Island, the threads of magic and friendship bear out in touching ways that are never too saccharine. Instead, the show is always perfectly sweet, and I’m so excited to find what more there is to discover on this whimsical island.
Summer Camp Island is streaming on HBO Max. Its first two seasons consist of sixty 12-minute episodes. Season three is now available. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.