Cinematic Releases: Wonder Park (2019) Reviewed

Imagine it: Somewhere in a pocket dimension, a visionary chimpanzee with a literal magic marker and divine inspiration creates and maintains a bright and happy amusement park known as Wonderland with the help of his animal friends. Home to such incredible attractions as “Clockwork Swings”, “Zero-G Land”, the “Sky Flinger” and a carousel of flying fish who can zoom guests around the entire park, Wonderland is the embodiment of one creative, bright little girl’s imagination made manifest. But when June – a curious, mischievous and clever child who has been building a scale model of Wonderland with her mother since she was very small – is overcome by anxiety and fears that start to govern her psyche, she unwittingly brings darkness and doom to the park and must find a way to help the animals save it from the horde of “chimpan-zombies” trying to dismantle and destroy it from the inside.

Such is the premise of Wonder Park, a collaboration between Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon Movies that is one part Meet the Robinsons and one part Inside Out, with a dash of its predecessor Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius thrown in for good measure. Its emotional beats are carefully constructed as we are introduced to June’s Wonderland, a happy place where her STEM interests and talents are encouraged to flourish through the warmth of her mother and father, which their family builds out of paper and plastic, crayons and cardboard in the everyday world while, unbeknownst to them, the plush chimpanzee Peanut (voiced by Norbert Leo Butz) has been building an actual version with his light-marker, guided by the whispers of June’s mother (Jennifer Garner) and thus inspired by June’s boundless imagination.

June herself, voiced with plucky sincerity by Brianna Denski, is quirky and optimistic, a likable kid who loves to create and believes in the bond between herself and her parents. When this bond is challenged, as June’s mother becomes ill and must go away to seek treatment, June finds herself constantly afraid to leave her father and starts doubting the magic of her Wonderland. Her anxieties build up and become a darkness sucking the life from the real park, where Peanut and his gang of living plush characters begin to despair until June stumbles upon them. Each animal seems to represent a different aspect of June’s mind, and they work together to try and understand the darkness so they can defeat it and reawaken the joyous amusement park, teaching June to find faith and hope where she had been mired in doubt and sadness.

Hmmmm. No sandwiches here. Must look somewhere else. 

And, indeed, it is the characters that make Wonder Park work so well. Each of the animals, which in June’s daily reality are plush characters she and her mother have used in their amusement park games, work metaphorically to illustrate who June is and how deeply her emotional conflicts extend. June’s creativity, stagnated since her mother left, is Peanut, embodying June’s doubt and hiding himself away in solitude as she has been pretending to no longer care about her imaginary world. Lovable Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), a big-hearted blue lug of a bear, is the spark of June’s childish optimism challenged by fear. Her knack for building, fixing, and engineering is represented by a pair of busy little beavers, Gus (Nickelodeon alum Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong), whose faded abilities to jump-start Wonderland after the emergence of the darkness has made them argue. Nervous little Steve (John Oliver), a porcupine who obsesses over safety, and Greta (Mila Kunis), a wild boar with a level-headed mind and kind heart, are June’s intelligence and logic, confronted by mistrust and a crumbling sense of safety that has broken down in her mother’s absence.

All of these characters together, as they meet and interact with June, help her to understand her own feelings and how she has been holding herself back. The film succeeds in building up the relationship between June and her parents, so that when the vaguely threatening “illness” takes her mother away, it’s genuinely heart-wrenching. June goes through what is essentially a nervous breakdown, believing that her innocent and contented life has been shattered, and has rendered her creative pursuits irrelevant and worthless. She throws away her Wonderland, and has to be forced to face it in order to find the wonder inside herself once again.

While it isn’t made explicitly clear just how real the “real” Wonderland is, the metaphor works surprisingly well, if ham-fisted in the sense that it is represented by a giant cloud of darkness in the skies over the park. It is difficult to balance a difficult concept like darker emotions in a way that younger viewers will understand and connect with, while being complex enough to be honest and reachable by adult audiences. Wonder Park accomplishes this balance better than some family films have been able – Disney’s recent version of A Wrinkle in Time comes to mind as a failure to make its darkness seem real – but it does have a tendency to oversimplify some of its key themes. Still, its cast of lovable characters and genuinely likable, realistic kid protagonist make it an endearing 90 minutes. It is refreshing to see an original story in an animated movie, especially one that uses such familiar tropes so adeptly.

Older viewers may find the conflict too obvious, the conclusions too clear, but Wonder Park is ultimately a film that knows it must keep things simple to get the point across. Luckily, it has a cast of adorable goofballs and an emotional center that refuses to be too overly sentimental to keep it likable, and it is a sweet ride, indeed.

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-Dana Culling