Class Action Park is a, strangely nostalgic, trip down memory lane for anyone that has ever visited the infamously dangerous Action Park in Vernon New Jersey. It’s also a fun, too-light-for-it’s-own-good, revamp of a lot of material that has already been covered elsewhere in just as much detail (though admittedly with less flair).
For those unfamiliar with Action Park, it was a bit of a right of passage for people living in the NJ/PA/NY area in the late 70’s through the 90s, as well as for subsequent generations that knew it under its rebranded title Mountain Creek. For what it’s worth, the park did revert back to being known as “Action Park” for a brief spell in the 2010’s, before going back to being known as Mountain Creek.
The doc, an HBO Max Original, follows several former Action Park employees and actors as they reminisce about their experiences at the park and everything it became infamous for. It also serves as an overview of the life of its founder, Gene Mulvihill, and his numerous efforts to get around the sort of basic safety regulations an amusement/water park would be subject to.
Prior to writing this review, I decided to take a look at what the critical response to this doc was. What can I say? I was curious about what people thought of the doc, especially as a person that grew up visiting it’s Mountain Creek/Action Park revival incarnation every summer as a kid. And upon doing so, I was actually pretty shocked with how much people liked this documentary! Now, don’t get me wrong, I liked it too, but one thing caught me as being a bit particular about the critical response to the doc.
Based off of the reviews Class Action Park is getting, you’d be led to believe that it’s a solid documentary that didn’t have any glaring issues or places that it could improve. And like, yeah, the documentary we got was fine for what it was. But it also could have been more than that.
As is, Class Action Park is a fun, mostly light look at the notoriously unsafe amusement park. A lot of the film is spent reminiscing about the park and the “good old days” of unsupervised fun spent there. That in itself is all well and fine, I suppose, but it kinda feels dirty once the film starts to dive into the details of some of the parks more morally bankrupt aspects.
The final chunk of the documentary dives into the stories of people who were injured/killed at the park and shows how devastating their injuries were for their families. And once this comes up, the documentary’s tone completely flips from the playfulness that punctuated the rest of the film. It genuinely starts to feel like a different movie once this happens too and honestly, I’m not unconvinced that a more serious look at Action Park would have made for a better movie.
What’s divulged in the final act of the documentary feels a lot loftier and more akin to a true crime series. And with the popularity of true crime (both in podcasts, film, and television) these days, I can’t help but feel like using this tone for a full documentary about the Vernon water park would have been a great idea.
Again, it’s not that Class Action Park was a bad documentary. In fact, I quite liked it and it brought me back to my own misadventures at the (safer) park after it had been rebranded as Mountain Creek/Action Park. But while I could have accepted the film we got as is, that tonal shift in the last act of it showed me that there was a much more interesting movie waiting to get made here.
There’s also, like, a vague dirtiness to the way that transition happens in the movie for me. Right before it happens, we get an explanation that Action Parks reputation had a counter intuitive effect on its popularity. Essentially, the more people got hurt at the park/the more vocal people got in the press about how unsafe it was, the more teenagers and its clientele deitized the place. Which is true; I actually have a lot of memories of my friends and I (stupidly) hyping the park up to each other each year while we were planning a trip there. The reputation of the park did make going feel like a huge adventure for us. But… The film’s mentioning of this feels somewhat fake/like a forced transition into the series side of the parks history. After all, it had just spent a bit over an hour glorifying the park and how straight-up incompetent almost everything about it was… Wasn’t it guilty of the very thing it was condemning?
In a perfect world, I think Class Action Park should have been 15-20 minutes of nostalgic hype, followed by an hour of serious investigation into the issues behind the park. No laughing, no “that’s crazy! He created his own insurance company” hype; just some straight/clean reporting.
I still enjoyed this documentary a lot but as far as it’s content goes, it has about as much interesting information as a 15 minute Defunctland upload about the park, albeit with some primary sources and higher production value.
Do I recommend Class Action Park? I guess?