Principal Cast : Brianna Denski, Ken Hudson Campbell, Jennifer Garner, Matthew Broderick,Ryan “Fitzy” Fitzgerald, Wippa, Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Norbert Leo Butz, Oev Michael Urbas, Kevin Chamberlin, Kate McGregor-Stewart.
Synopsis: Wonder Park tells the story of an amusement park where the imagination of a wildly creative girl named June comes alive.
Do your children enjoy a good existential crisis? Can they handle multiple layers of emotional juxtaposition and an absurd obviousness in imaginary characters working as scaffolding for the central character to grow and learn and develop through? Then Wonder Park is the film for them. Betwixt the beautifully rendered computer animation and the absurdly excellent voice cast, you’d think Wonder Park might have the words “smash hit” written across it. You’d be wrong. Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh on a film with no credited director (original helmer Dylan Brown was fired from production close to completion, and although we’ve credited his name in our logo above, in the film itself his name is nowhere to be found) and a plethora of entirely unmemorable supporting characters, but Pixar and Disney Animation’s recent renaissance has raised the expectation bar almost absurdly high to the point where even the most inventively amusing kiddie fare has quite the hurdle to overcome.
Young June (newcomer Brianna Denski) lives with her mother (Jennifer Garner) and father (Matthew Broderick) and spends her time constructing an enormous (and enormously impractical) amusement park throughout her home, her imagination driven largely through maternal interaction to the point where the park actually becomes a fully realised fantasy construct. That is, until June’s mother gets sick (with some Unexplained But Highly Dangerous Disease That Sends Her Away For An Undetermined Amount Of Time) and the young girl finds herself reacting by becoming a virtual recluse. Now somewhat older, June ventures away from her school camp and wanders into the forest, where she steps into the real-life version of her formative Wonderland theme park, and meets up with one-time imaginary park mascots Boomer (Ken Hudson Campell), a narcoleptic blue bear, Greta (Mila Kunis), a savvy red-haired warthog, Steve (John Oliver), the park’s official Safety Porcupine, and beaver twins Gus and Cooper (voiced in Australia by commercial radio duo Ryan “Fitzy” Fitzgerald and Wippa – check your version of the film if you’re outside the land Down Under). They are absent the park’s chief architect, chimpanzee Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), through who June and June’s mother invent the imaginative world of Wonderland’s astonishing rides. With the park currently being destroyed by hundreds of tiny plush toys named Chimpanzombies, June and the Wonderland gang must find a way to prevent it all from being swallowed up by “the darkness” and return things to their former glory.
Wonder Park ticks all the Pixar boxes on the Generic Children’s Film. Ostensibly adorable central character with a sad personal backstory around which a lot of the emotional content hinges? Check. Cute anthropomorphic animals used as comedy relief as well as entry points for tackling adult themes in a child-friendly manner? Check. Dazzling animation and an utterly fantastical world that kids will demand their parents take them to? You got it. A dynamic soundtrack and several chat-topping-hopefully songs? Cue your iPod for repetition in the car home from the cinema. Yes, Wonder Park delivers all the ingredients for a successful animated kids flick, the kind that examines some fairly robust themes of loss and imagination and Being A Child, but to it’s detriment the film handles things so obviously, so predictably, the film never really rises above mere mediocrity. Oh, it tries, it really does, and in the moment a lot of Wonder Park works… er… wonderfully. But the beautiful animation and dedicated voice work by the cast can’t salvage a film that feels a little piecemeal, a little hodgepodge, and that’s the shame of it all.
It’s easy to kick a film that doesn’t work for me specifically, because Wonder Park probably isn’t really aimed at adults (although there are a few moments of subversive adult humour within) but I doubt it works as well for kids either because tonally it’s all over the place. The central character of June feels a little too much like a knock-off of Inside Out’s Riley, a snappy patter from Brianna Denski giving her a clever modernity, but also an indifference I couldn’t overcome. June’s mother and father are obviously central to June’s journey through her mixed emotions but neither are particularly insightful or unique, just the stereotypical bland parental figures who Never Understand What June Is Going Through because why would they? The transition from June between the “real” world and the world of Wonderland (which gets hugely metaphysical real quick, and isn’t specifically answered in a satisfactory manner either) is meant to seem a little like Alice In Wonderland (ha, didja getit?) but is rather jarring as a storytelling point.
The animal characters are the film’s real stars, with the likes of John Oliver (who is about to go on and voice a major character in Disney’s The Lion King) and Mila Kunis as the most beautiful warthog you’ll ever see, provide a tsunami of comedic shtick and sidebar subplots but otherwise have little nutritional value to the overall story. Gus and Cooper feel too similar to the opossums from the Ice Age franchise, Oliver’s Steve the Porcupine hearkened too close to a similar character from Over The Hedge, and the film’s central villains, the ubiquitous plush toy army of Chimpanzombies (whose motivations for destroying the park are never explained) are omnipresent but used too frequently as a MacGuffin for kicking off a number of hugely enthusiastic action sequences. Australian audiences aren’t as infatuated by amusement parks and theme parks as our American brethren (by and large) so a lot of the film’s eye candy in watching gigantic ferris wheels and carousels and insane physics-defying rides being used alternatively as weapons and escape vehicles might not have the same value-added cathartic joy here as it does across the Pacific, but there’s still plenty of enjoyment for the younger crowd in seeing a little girl bring a gigantic ball-flinging spider-machine thing to life like a master puppeteer.
Look, Wonder Park isn’t terrible, and you can certainly tell the filmmakers (even the ones fired before release) had their storytelling hearts in the right place. It just doesn’t ring with the clarity and purity of the best animated films of today, a slog of emotional conniptions that feels a little too manipulative to be organically sewn into the plot, and despite state-of-the-art animation (from Spanish production house Ilion Animation) there’s a real tonal imbalance to the story that negatively competes with its visual beauty. The kids’ll love it but it lacks that intangible spark to make it a real keeper.