Trauma mixed with wacky amusement park antics makes ‘Wonder Park’ an odd ride
Perhaps it’s a post-“Inside Out” phenomenon that animated films aimed at children need to tackle complex emotions or psychology, translating it into terms kids can understand.
This is the case with “Wonder Park,” a film that is part “Roller Coaster Tycoon,” part lesson on grappling with the fear of losing a parent. It’s a complicated dynamic where both storylines seem deeply at odds with each other. The wonders of Wonder Park are dampened by the pall of grief that the protagonist is experiencing, while the wacky amusement park antics prevent the story from going especially deep.
André Nemec, Robert Gordon and Josh Appelbaum collaborated on the screenplay, and animator Dylan Brown was to make his directorial debut on the film, until he was fired by Paramount for inappropriate conduct during the production. At the surface, the film seems like a fantastical — or as the characters might say, “splendiferous!” — romp through a magical amusement park operated by talking animals, but the story itself is much more rooted in grave family issues.
Wonder Park has been dreamed up by June (Brianna Denski) and her mother (Jennifer Garner), who whisper their designs for the theme park into the ear of a stuffed chimp, Peanut. In Brianna’s imagination, Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz) uses his magical marker to craft the outlandish new attractions, like a carousel made of flying fish. But all the wonder goes out of Wonder Park when June’s mother has to leave home to be treated for an illness. June stops playing with her friends or dreaming up new designs for her park, instead developing an obsessive-compulsive obsession with keeping her father (Matthew Broderick) healthy.
So where does the world of Wonder Park meet up with this more serious story? After June bails out of the bus ride to math camp, she wanders into the woods, enters a portal and finds herself at the amusement park of her dreams. The film doesn’t present this as a dream, fantasy or hallucination. It’s the world June and her mom created in their minds, and now June has to save it … which means she’s saving herself, because she is, of course, the wonder in Wonder Park.
The second and third acts of this admittedly brief film involve June teaming up with the gang of animals that run Wonder Park: a warthog (Mila Kunis), bear (Ken Hudson Campbell), porcupine (John Oliver) and pair of beavers (Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong) to save the park from “the darkness” that has enveloped the creatively blocked Peanut. It’s also turned all the cute little plushies into a cheerful, murderous zombie horde. Getting the gears turning on Wonder Park is just the challenge for June to use her brains and bravery, learning along the way that she only needs belief in herself to be creative.
There are some colorful and imaginative set pieces, and the voice performances from Oliver and Garner in particular are especially excellent, but the tone of ‘Wonder Park” is odd as the gravity of June’s real-life issues invade the wonderful world of Wonder Park. Imbuing a story like this with issues of grief and trauma can be a good lesson for kids, but it just makes the whole affair that much less splendiferous and that much more solemn.
Cast: Jennifer Garner, John Oliver, Ken Jeong, Kenan Thompson, Matthew Broderick, Mila Kunis, Brianna Denski.
Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.
Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and action.