Synopsis – WONDER PARK tells the story of a magnificent amusement park where the imagination of a wildly creative girl named June comes alive.
My Take – Once upon a time Disney and Pixar used to be the only animated players in the field, but over the years other studios like Illumination, Dreamworks, Blue Sky and Sony have not only upped their game in terms of quality but are now directly competing in terms of box office numbers, critical appraisal and awards. Hoping to also contend in the same category with this film, Paramount and Nickelodeon seem to have paired up to specifically target their main audience – kids.
As evident from its marketing material, this animated film, written by Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, is colorful, silly, wholly inoffensive, and creative enough to engage the little ones. Most importantly it doesn’t overstay its welcome thanks to a brisk 85-minute run time. It is filled with action, humor and heartfelt moments that make it fairly enjoyable. The fact that it teaches an important and simply communicated lesson to younger children about how to deal with depression and anxiety is the thematic cherry on top.
However, keeping in mind its interesting premise and the quality of a few recently released animated films (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World), it just doesn’t seem to quite reach its supposed potential. While the animation is great, it just fails when it comes to its story, plot, and characters. A factor which can be contributed to the fact that this is also a rare film to arrive in theaters without a directing credit.
The original director, a former Pixar animator, Dylan Brown, was fired during production for “inappropriate and unwanted conduct,” which reportedly included touching and caressing female co-workers. Hence his name was removed from the credits, and no replacement was ever announced. If you ever thought is it possible to make a film without a director? Apparently, yes, and the result is this film.
No, the film isn’t an outright broken mess, it’s just there was a lot more that could have been done with it, as it stands now it’s a watchable film even if it feels unfocused and has some mood-swings with the tone from scene to scene, making it quite a haphazard watch.
The story follows June Bailey (voiced by Brianna Denski), a very imaginative and adventurous young girl, who along with her mother (voiced by Jennifer Garner) has created a make-believe amusement park which consists of several wild rides, overseen by animal hosts, including a big, blue bear named Boomer (voiced by Ken Hudson Campbell), a safety-conscious porcupine named Steve (voiced by John Oliver), a warthog named Greta (voiced by Mila Kunis), two beaver brothers named Gus and Cooper (voiced by Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong), and a chimpanzee named Peanut (voiced by Norbert Leo Butz), who acts as the park’s primary engineer, and creates everything based on the direction provided by the real-life June and her mom.
While she loves testing out her experiments with Banky (voiced by Oen Michael Urbas), her awkward nerd BFF, in the neighborhood, June’s emotions shut down along with her imaginary park the moment her mom falls ill and moves away. Though her dad (voiced by Matthew Broderick) tries to get her to have faith in her mother’s recovery she refuses to do so. However when June finds herself transported into the park, which has fallen on tough times due to a certain darkness, she must find a way to defeat it by saving the park and herself.
As is often the case with powerful and memorable animated films, this one too is also about grief and the park obviously represents June’s depression, and how things in our lives that are worthy of love and attention might get short shrift because a tragedy disables us from giving attention to anything else. Here, the relationship between June and her mom is at the center of the grief and joy. With the film’s best moments being about June dealing with uncertainty whether her mom will return to her not. While they makers don’t indulge too much into June’s psyche they divulge enough information which can help younger children understand how grief affects one.
From a visual standpoint, the film looks terrific – striking, vivid colors and landscapes really stand out. I like the animation and the magical looking effects. I love the vision of the park and the details that capture the theme of a child’s mind. All of the areas of the park are vibrant and unique. I love the bendy straw slide and the balloon cove. My pick of the lot would be introduction the park at the very start and when June and the mascots are dodging the oncoming destruction of the park set foot by the zombie sock monkey toys (I can guarantee you this is the only film to that zombie sock monkeys).
However, for a film about a magical amusement park, the film is surprisingly morbid, with a severe lack of wonder. Animation films over the years have become very dynamic and fun, when it comes to their stories and have a sense of adventure that takes us out of our world. While the film does semi-accomplish this, in the sense, it has clever ideas and solid foundations, but too many trim brakes, suspensions, bumps, dead spots, and other hits of filmed friction slow the glee and weaken the poignant pillars attempted.
Screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec are known mainly for genre TV series like Zoo and Life on Mars, and their sensibility seems ill-suited to family fare. There’s a lot of superfluous world-building in the Wonderland portion of the film, but it’s mostly just busy work that pads out the story and delays the emotional revelations. There isn’t much impact to those emotional revelations when they come, either, because even June is little more than a generic spunky kid with wide eyes and a bespectacled best friend (who is apparently in love with her, in a somewhat questionable subplot that goes nowhere).
Also the film is quite predictable; all the symbolism, mystery, and potential twists are easily discernible and lacking the finesse and mind-blowing moments usually seen in studio animated films. Most of the film is just loud and chaotic as the characters evade the little chimps throughout the park. The idea of a narcoleptic bear is kind of funny and a couple of beavers have a few amusing lines, but the characters here are generally bland. The worst being the chimpanzee named Peanut, who seems to have been fashioned into something like a romantic lead, with dreamy blue eyes and a decidedly adult voice. Yet the main thing that is semi disappointing, is how short the film is.
Clocking in at just around 85 minutes, this film certainly moves fast, but not so much in the good way as the content feels a little lacking to be honest. The film might end up as an adequate setting for a low-stakes TV show, but as the starting point for a big-screen animated adventure, it never manages to take off.
Unsurprisingly the voice cast consisting of Jennifer Garner, Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Ken Jeong, Kenan Thompson, Matthew Broderick, Ken Hudson Campbell, Norbert Leo Butz and Brianna Denski are quite earnest and add to the watch ability factor of the film. On the whole, ‘Wonder Park’ is a watchable yet entirely forgettable animated venture which floats on a meandering story line.
Directed – Josh Appelbaum
Rated – PG
Run Time – 85 minutes