Wonder Park (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
An earnest, well-intentioned (if somewhat tone deaf) comedy/drama about a girl’s imagination coming to life.
The animation is vivid and the colors and images pop right off the big screen.
Young actor Brianna Denski does a really nice job with the voiceover performance of the leading role.
Wonder Park deals with some fairly heavy subject matter, involving potentially terminal illness, that younger viewers may not be ready for.
I’m sorry everyone…this movie is just not very good.
Everything emotional feels inauthentic, even for an animated film. There’s a whole lot of spinning the wheels and never actually getting anywhere.
Far be it from me to complain about a movie that tries to do a noble thing and introduce the concept of grief and anxiety to younger audiences, but Inside Out, Up, Wall-E, and many other animated films have found inventive, clever, and impressionable ways to make those themes resonate with viewers of all ages.
So consider Wonder Park. A precursor film to an upcoming Nickelodeon animated television series, this imaginative story takes us into the mind of 8-year-old June (Brianna Denski), fascinated with amusement parks. For years she has pretended, with stuffed animals, toys, and an encouraging mother (Jennifer Garner), that her bedroom is the greatest amusement park in the world, “Wonderland.”
Her bond with her mother is as close as close can be, the type of mother/daughter relationship where the father (Matthew Broderick) just opens a door, checks in on them, and goes back to doing whatever it is he was doing before he poked his head into the room.
What June does not quite understand is that her pretend world exists for real in a parallel universe, and whatever she orchestrates in her drawings and play time, determines the fate of the characters who live within Wonderland.
This includes the affable big blue bear Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), warthog Greta (Mila Kunis), chimpanzee Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), hyperkinetic hedgehog Steve (John Oliver), and two precocious beavers (Kenan Thompson, Ken Jeong).
We also get an army of zombie chimpanzees (What? How?), a few other characters on the periphery of everything, and eventually June, who stumbles into her own imaginative world when she runs away from a school bus taking her to a summer-long math camp.
Wait. Are summer-long math camps a thing?
By the time June begrudgingly boards the bus, she has learned that Mom has to go away to receive treatment because she is “sick.” This leads to June’s anger and sadness, culminating in destruction of her Wonderland-world. And so, upon arrival to the imaginary world she created, she finds a run-down, decrepit Wonderland her friends are forced to live in.
Escapism is fine. Using analogies is fine. However, the idea of a rundown amusement park as symbolism for fear, anxiety, and worry over an ailing parent is a curious decision. As one might expect, we get pop song breaks, the aloof, oddly not-sad father, and a bunch of anthropomorphic animals helping June learn more about herself and why the world works the way it does.
As June stays longer in her imaginative world, things grow more dire. The chimpanzee zombie army grows. A giant, swirling cloud of darkness begins to blanket the park’s skyline. Desperation ensues. Steve the hedgehog has a crush on Greta the warthog (I dunno either…). Presumably, the math camp has continued and is no one looking for the student who ran away?!?! Did anyone call Dad?
Wonder Park is a film that feels mishandled and inauthentic in its delivery. I am curious to see how this works as episodic television, because the film seems to introduce a number of thoughts, ideas, and concepts, which could be expanded into a series. However, the writing must improve, because this dialogue, written seemingly by committee, lacks any insight, meaning, or depth.
From a visual standpoint, the film looks terrific - striking, vivid colors and landscapes really stand out. But the visuals can only take us so far, and even with a spirited voiceover performance by Denski, Wonder Park seems to not have a handle on how to convey the themes it introduces.
If June’s mother is “sick” and needs to go away for some time, why does June never ask her dad about what her Mom is going through? What school has a summer-long math camp? With an ailing parent, is sending your daughter away for a summer the smart thing to do? Honestly, why can’t they visit Mom? How did the imaginary world come into existence? Do all imaginary worlds exist when created? Why are the chimpanzees turned into zombies again? Is June reported missing?
Wonder Park originally went into production in 2014 and the film has had a rather perilous road to get from the storyboard, conceptualization phase to the big screen. Even more alarming is the fact that Wonder Park arrives in theaters without a director’s credit, as director Dylan Brown was fired in January 2019 for reports of inappropriate conduct with several female staff members and assistants.
With no director even credited, Wonder Park reflects a film assembled by corporate brass, largely out-of-touch with the outside world and probably children as well. As a film, this feels like a desperate attempt to salvage an idea many, many people have invested lots of time, energy, and resources in.
Hopefully, the television series works much better.
CAST & CREW
Featuring the Voices of: Brianna Denski, Jennifer Garner, Ken Hudson Campbell, Kenan Thompson, Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Ken Jeong, Norbert Leo Butz, Matthew Broderick.
Written by: Josh Applebaum, André Nemec (screenplay); Robert Gordon, Josh Applebaum, André Nemec (story).
Release Date: March 15, 2019