In the Washington Post, Hal Hinson declared that The Great Outdoors was "just coarse enough, and unfunny enough, to achieve true awfulness. Imagine that it's raining cats and dogs and you're locked in a north woods cabin for weeks with the people you like least, and you'll pretty much have a feel for what it's like to sit through this movie...The gags that spring out of this situation...are all lame variations on the theme of nightmare vacations. It's hard to imagine how this theme could have been executed with less invention...Not even the usually buoyant Candy can keep afloat. For perhaps the first time in his career he looks genuinely unhappy."
The Variety review concluded that the "last third of the film is a real mess," while in the New York Times, Janet Maslin declared that "the collective energy that has gone into making The Great Outdoors probably wouldn't be enough to light a campfire...Though the film never becomes actively unfunny, neither does it do much more than tread water. The raccoons have a better time than the audience will."
Obviously, I disagree with this consensus, and would argue that The Great Outdoors, while at times ridiculous, deserves credit for both its terrific Dan Aykroyd-John Candy pairing and its campy camping spirit. The jokes are cheap and the story doesn't really go anywhere, but it successfully recalls the best and the worst of your camping memories; it's like the camping version of National Lampoon's Vacation. In fact, since John Hughes also wrote all of the Vacation movies, The Great Outdoors really is the missing installment in the Vacation series. Had it starred Chevy Chase, I'd even argue that the movie would be remembered more fondly.
But it didn't star Chevy Chase. It starred two great comic actors (as well as Annette Bening in her feature film debut) performing in perfect tandem with each other. They're basically playing the same versions of themselves from other movies (Candy from Summer Rental, Aykroyd from Tommy Boy), but that doesn't detract from the fun here. My favorite scenes between the Candy and Aykroyd come during the first day, beginning with the first discussion on the patio and ending with the grilling of the lobsters (why would they have lobster instead of fish? It's CA, not Maine!).
Another great food scene comes later on, and can be appreciated for anyone with a male relative who thinks his manhood can be best demonstrated best by gluttonously eating a small animal for no other reason than because they were challenged to do so. Behold the "Old '96er":
So why did the critics come down so hard on The Great Outdoors? What was it that didn't work for them with this Candy-Hughes pairing that did work in both Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (the year before The Great Outdoors) and Uncle Buck (the year after it)? I would guess that it was because The Great Outdoors simply lacks any emotional bent. It's silly and juvenile and in the third act, when we're supposed to learn a lesson about family togetherness and building character and taking the good with the bad, well, we get a really bizarre twist about borrowing money. It's a strange way to end a camping trip, but then, aren't the best memories about camping trips the wackiest ones?