Sweet and sincere, Wonder Park is a spirited animated film that occasionally manages to elicit that titular feeling of wonder. The Nickelodeon film is a strong testament to the power of imagination that veers into moments of magical realism. But there’s something incomplete to this film. Wonder Park introduces broad caricatures and compelling themes, but doesn’t quite follow through — as if the ride stalled right before the finishing loop-de-loop.
This was the moment halfway through Wonder Park when I thought, “Why does this feel like an over-long TV pilot?” Well, because it is. Developed by Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon Movies, Wonder Park is set to launch a TV series based on the film later this year, making it the third Nickelodeon animated film to spawn an animated series after Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Barnyard. That undercurrent of corporate intent is what makes the earnest emotions and stunning animation in Wonder Park feel a little hollow.
Wonder Park is a movie without a director. That’s true functionally and creatively, as the film lost its original director Dylan Brown deep into production in 2018 and will roll into theaters without one attached. Perhaps that’s why Wonder Park feels like a film made by committee.
The story follows Cameron “June” Bailey (Sofia Mali as the younger version and Brianna Denski as the older), a spunky 10-year-old girl with a boundless imagination and a rather dangerous proclivity for experiments. After she accidentally wrecks her neighborhood, she limits herself to building her dream amusement park within the confines of models in her house, aided by her angelic and far-too-forgiving mom (Jennifer Garner). But when her mom gets diagnosed with cancer, June becomes disillusioned with her imaginary park and trashes it, adopting a cautious and paranoid personality to boot. Worried about her father while on the way to math camp, June ditches and wanders through the woods only to find herself smack dab in the middle of her imaginary park. But Wonderland isn’t the bright, crowded park of her dreams — it has instead fallen to disarray as thousands of evil “Chimpan-zombies” regularly wreak havoc on it. June teams up with the animals that formerly ran the park to save it from the ominous “darkness” that threatens to consume Wonderland.
Like many a theme park, the various parts of Wonder Park are familiar. The high-tech hijinks and multiple Rube Goldberg machines recall the classic Nickelodeon cartoon Jimmy Neutron, while the misfit animals that run the park are a familiar staple of many a children’s movie. The film’s most compelling elements — the dilapidated park and the sick mother — feel ripped right out of a Studio Ghibli film, as if a Nickelodeon executive watched Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro and thought, “How do we Hollywood-ize this?”
There’s a glossy sheen to Wonder Park, as if it’s been designed for maximum entertainment. It’s not unlike a theme park itself, in fact, in which real joy and genuine emotion can be found in even the most manufactured of places. But why is it that Wonder Park doesn’t feel that entertaining? It doesn’t stoop to moments of dumb comedy as many of its fellow family films do. Its supporting characters aren’t grating or overly annoying. Its emotions rarely get too cloying. It’s not too much or too little of anything, it just is. Wonder Park coasts right in the middle — an inoffensive movie designed for parents to put on in the background to distract their kids for an hour and a half.
At least, for that hour and a half, the kids will have something beautiful to look at. The animation is gorgeous, with the theme park itself and its quirky features — from a carousel of flying fish, to the surreal Zero G Land, to the breathtaking Fireworks Falls — fully embodying June’s limitless imagination. It’s in the sweeping shots of Wonderland that Wonder Park lived up to its title, making one forget about the lackluster story.
The problem with the story is that it takes too long to get started (we have to go through at least two subplots before we even arrive at the park), and by the time it does get started, it’s over before it’s begun. The Wonderland animals — which include the responsible wild boar Greta (Mila Kunis), the hapless porcupine Steve (John Oliver), the lovable narcoleptic bear Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), the bickering beavers Gus and Cooper (Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong), and the dashing chimpanzee and leader Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz) — all start out as broad stereotypes and never get the chance to become more than that. The cast give impassioned performances, but when the film comes down to the heartbreaking climax, the emotions ring hollow.
Wonder Park is a testament to the power of the imagination that ends up not feeling very imaginative. It plainly wears the influences of its Nickelodeon predecessors and can’t help feeling like a recycled hodgepodge of all of them. While moments of brilliance and genuine heart are sprinkled throughout Wonder Park, it feels better suited to the small screen.
/Film Rating: 5.5 out of 10
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