Genre: CG Animation
Director: Dylan Brown
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Matthew Broderick, John Oliver, Mila Kunis, Kenan Thompson, Ken Jeong, Norbert Leo Butz, Brianna Denski and Ken Hudson Campbell
Runtime: 1 hr 25 mins
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 14 March 2019
Synopsis: Wonder Park tells the story of a magnificent amusement park where the imagination of a wildly creative girl named June comes alive.
At least in the first act of the latest animation from Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon Movies, you’d think that ‘Wonder Park’ could very well soar to the heights of Pixar’s classics like ‘Up’ and ‘Inside Out’. Oh yes, there is true wonder to be had in that opening half-hour, which through three beautiful sequences takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotions.
The first of these introduces us to the delightful amusement park named ‘Wonderland’, which boasts of such amazing rides as Clockwork Swings, Fireworks Falls and the Skyflingers, and is run by a bunch of eclectic characters – including a blue bear named Boomer who welcomes its visitors, a porcupine named Steve who is the park’s safety officer, and a chimpanzee Peanut who designs and builds the park’s rides. It also establishes how the park is in fact conceived through by the precocious 10-year-old June (voiced by Brianna Denski) and her mother (Jennifer Garner), the former’s voice of whom Peanut hears in the wind and that which inspires him to create the rides through strokes of his magical golden pen.
Another demonstrates just how plucky and determined June is in real life, enlisting the help of the other children in her suburban neighbourhood to design a make-shift rollercoaster through their backyards, complete with three-storey high drops and even a 360-degree loop. That same sequence also demonstrates just how supportive her mother is of her sense of wonder, so much so that even after the maiden run of her invention wrecks half of the entire neighbourhood and causes the family to have to compensate the town and its neighbours, June’s mother remains ever as encouraging.
And last but not least is probably the best one of them all, showing just how expansive their shared project becomes over time (to the extent that it consumes almost every inch of their house) before portraying just how devastated June becomes when her mother falls ill and has to leave for a medical facility indefinitely to seek treatment. By the end of that first act, you’ll probably have cheered and teared as June tries to remove every vestige of the project from her house so as not to be reminded of her mother’s immense absence.
You’re also just as likely to be able to guess that Wonderland will therefore fall into a state of gloom, which as the trailer has shown, causes the park’s operators to be threatened by a whole army of chimpan-zombies whose merriment has since descended into malevolence. The only hope of saving the park lies in June herself, who stumbles upon the real Wonderland while trying to steal away from math camp through the woods back to her home. Not surprisingly, the clue to lifting the cloud of darkness over Wonderland has something to do with her mother, and also requires that June overcome the despair inside of her.
It is a potentially rich premise all right, both in terms of how it deals with potentially challenging themes of loss and grief and how it could be a bittersweet affirmation of emotional resilience. Alas, in neither regard does the script by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (with an additional story credit to Robert Gordon) pull off convincingly – not only does it seem reluctant to return to the former once June embarks on her race-against-time to save the park, it also gives short shrift to the latter with an all-too convenient happily-ever-after ending that belittles the very premise itself.
In fact, we would even go as far as to say that the rest of the film feels like a different movie altogether, what with the focus less on June than on the motley bunch she teams up with. Between the narcoleptic Boomer, the loquacious Steve, a hyperactive pair of beavers named Gus and Cooper and their assertive female leader Greta, there seems hardly any time or space for June to even reminisce of her mother, before the next noisy, frenetic but otherwise uninspired action sequence rolls along. Oh yes, it is somewhat ironic that the movie gets less engaging the more it tries to fill every corner of the screen with a cornucopia of things going on at the same time.
It doesn’t help that none of the non-human characters are particularly charming, not even with a voice cast that includes Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Ken Jeong and Kenan Thompson. More than once, you’d wonder if they are simply trying to shout over one another to get your attention, which as you may suspect grows increasingly tiresome over the course of the movie. It is telling that the human characters here are the more interesting ones, but also a pity that the movie neglects them after the first act; in particular, we would have loved to see more about the relationship between June and her father after her mother is hospitalised, especially how she takes out her anxiety at her father by turning paranoid over his health and well-being.
Indeed, there is much potential in its premise for a poignant story about coping with the sudden loss of someone who has been the source of inspiration in our lives, not least for a young teenage girl transiting into adulthood. But ‘Wonder Park’ never fully lives up to that potential, opting instead for a string of madcap sequences aimed squarely at younger audiences. We’d wish it had summoned the courage and conviction to be less of a literal thrill ride, than an emotional one like the first act of the movie; and we suspect that had something to do with the fact that its director, veteran Pixar animator Dylan Brown, was fired from the movie halfway into production. Tellingly, the film could have benefited from stronger direction, but at the very least, if the kids need a distraction, there is still good fun within to keep them entertained.
(It falls short of being wondrous, but offers enough zany antics and literal thrills to be good fun for younger audiences)
Review by Gabriel Chong