A successful children’s adventure film fills its viewers with a sense of wonder. Stealing adults back through time to sit as peers with the littlest audience members and share in their feelings of awe. Wonder Park evokes such wonder. In the sense that you may sit and wonder, Why does this film exist?
June is a singular girl. Creative, fearless and brimming with mischief. As an outlet for her vivid imagination, she and her beloved mother have created a hidden world. Wonderland is an amusement park built from their words, laughter, sketches and love. Its plans whispered into the ear of her toy monkey, Peanuts, at bedtime then carried away to wherever the best secrets go.
When June (Brianna Denski) tries to replicate the park in the real world, the rollercoaster of found objects wins her the respect of all the neighbourhood kids and the thrill ride of her life. And almost ends that life into the bargain. While Dad (Matthew Broderick) ponders grounding her forever, Mom (Jennifer Garner) has a better idea. They should build Wonderland. Together.
But just as work on the blueprints and intricate models begins in earnest, something scary happens to June’s vibrant, energetic mum. Her energy falters and her very essence seems to fade. When the illness which stole the colour from her cheeks steals her away from the family home, June cannot bear the reminders of a happier time. She slams the door shut on Wonderland and vows never to think of it again.
Sent away to camp by her concerned dad, June cannot shake her own anxieties from her mind. She escapes the group to make her way home but ends up on a quite different journey. Without those whispered words, Wonderland has fallen into ruin. An ominous cloud swallows more of its marvels each day, Peanuts the monkey is missing and the park’s inhabitants need someone to step up and fight The Darkness before it consumes them all.
Animated features like Totoro, When Marnie Was There, Big Hero 6 and Coco have demonstrated how effectively films for younger viewers can tackle loneliness, confusion and grief when the storytellers have a good command of their emotional palette and a delicate touch. And fairytales so often bump off mothers for a shapely character arc that Disney are masters of tasteful matricide. This mommy boomerangs back.
Wonder Park begins well and has a stunning visual palette but its emotional colours have all run together into a shade that even Farrow and Ball would call meh. Paramount Animation has plans to screen a Wonder Park series on Nickelodeon later this year so Wonder Park the movie simply needed to introduce the characters to encourage families to tune in. That’s why it exists. And the lack of heart shows. Its void will leave you with plenty of time to ponder. There’s a LOT to think about:
What’s with all the animals? Wonderland is supposed to be run by June’s toys but, aside from Boomer the bear, the park hosts aren’t toy-like at all. Despite the painfully obvious potential for deep and meaningful dialogue, Steve the porcupine (voiced by John Oliver) has one of the only perceptive lines in the entire 85-minute runtime, “We’re just various members of the animal kingdom with the power of speech.” The random rodent is right.
Why is the film called Wonder Park if the park is called Wonderland and no one ever refers to it as anything else? Did no one discuss the fact that Wonderland was already taken?
Would this be a better film if discovering Wonderland represents June’s death in the woods and the rest of the narrative symbolically explores her search for her mother in the afterlife?
(Spoiler alert: it totally would)
Losing a director, gaining a small screen offshoot and being intended for small children are pretty poor reasons to half-arse a film. The stage on which Wonder Park plays out is stunning, the landscape textures rich, yet the narrative is as flat and soulless as the character renderings. It is as insubstantial as a soap bubble and leaves the same sense of mild irritation when the bubble finally bursts.
Wonder Park opens across the UK on 8th April