Review: Wonder Park

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Director: Dylan Brown

Writer: Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec

Starring: Brianna Denski, Kenan Thompson, Ken Jeong, Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Jennifer Garner, Matthew Broderick

Genre: Adventure

Rating: PG

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Hordes of cute-but-evil “chimpanzombies” holding axes, swords, and more attack June and her friends many times, with murderous intent; the good guys go up against them in big battles/confrontations–some explosions, crashes, etc. Massive rides-turned-robots wreak havoc in park; characters in peril. June trashes her neighborhood (and is in several dangerous situations, including traffic) after setting up an elaborate homemade rollercoaster. June’s mom has serious but unnamed illness that requires long-term treatment by a specialist; she’s shown looking sick, weak. Wonder Park is threatened by a giant, swirling purple storm cloud of darkness that sucks pieces of the park into it. Wonder Park has some big roller coasters and thrill rides; it’s exciting but intense when characters ride them. The animals sometimes fight/slap each other, mostly playfully. Steve can fire his quills at will; some impale other creatures. Arguing.

Language/Crude Humor: One use of “jeez.” Also swearing substitutes like “what the chuck” and “son of a woodchuck.”

Sexual Content: Steve the porcupine has a crush on Greta the warthog; he makes a few comments along the lines of “I burn for you, baby.” She tells him, “I think you’re cute,” and she kisses him once (causing his quills to “sproing”). June’s friend Banky also seems to have a crush on her; he’s thrilled when she says “I could kiss you!” in thanks.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Occasional senseless peril with massive consequence-free property damage

Positive Content:  Intended to entertain rather than educate, but demonstrates the importance of curiosity, imagination and supports the idea of kids using STEM, solving problems, and being creative.

Imagination and curiosity are essential parts of life. Don’t let fear stop you from being yourself. It’s important to take responsibility for your decisions and try to set things right if you’ve made mistakes. Underlines the importance of love, friendship, trust, loyalty, perseverance. Shows you can work your way through sad/hard times, big feelings and come out OK–though strategies and tools June uses to get there aren’t the kind real kids will have available. Her (very warranted) fear and worry don’t really get discussed; they just eventually get figured out.

June is extremely creative, imaginative, and curious. She sometimes takes big/scary risks, which can have negative consequences (e.g., trashing her neighborhood)–but she also learns from her mistakes and perseveres. She and her mom are a great team and have a loving, respectful relationship. The animals are a loyal team who care about the park/their home and keeping it safe. Peanut (and, by extension, June) learns that hiding from something scary isn’t the best way to deal with it, that you can find inspiration and passion inside yourself. June’s group of friends is diverse.

Review

Dear reader, I can only guess as to why you are spending your time here.  This is a critical assessment of a film that was clearly tossed to the wolves out of little hope of success. Coming but a week after even a middling Marvel flick like Captain Marvel essentially is a mark of disposal for just about any film, but especially a CGI-animated family film with a shaky production history and little meat on its bones. I had a similar encounter some time ago with Ferdinand, another animated feature released in the shadow of a box office giant, wherein I voiced concern that it had promise enough to warrant praise such that it’s now steeping in the mire of obscurity is a bit of a net loss, artistically speaking.

With the new release of Wonder Park, that ring of remorse for a film that will almost inevitably be relegated to the bargain bin by the holiday season this year was certainly there, but it’s a lot fainter this time. Centering on the imaginative wiles of Cameron “June” Bailey (Brianna Denski), a young suburbanite only child with a tightknit family unit, I was immediately reminded of a point of comparison that was in no way fair to so humble a production.

Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out is hardly anything short of a masterpiece, and using it to criticize another lesser work of similar plot threads is about as unfair to that latter film as releasing it at a time when it has no hope of breaking even when going up against an MCU release. Hey, fancy that. The parallels are not too explicit, at least. Sure they both feature a saucer-eyed moppet with a wild imagination who has to face-off with a potentially ruinous life-changing experience, but there is a significant difference in the weight of the situation. Inside Out’s Riley was coping with a major move from Minnesota, whereas June is handling the potential tragedy of losing her mom to a terminal illness.

The bonding moments between June and her mother Mrs. Bailey (Jennifer Garner) are sincere, heartfelt, and effective in establishing something valuable that could be lost, albeit brief and scarce. In fact, as half-baked and rushed a delivery as Wonder Park may be, it does at least have heart and emotional sincerity where it counts. The celebratory ending even comes with a mark of tonal sophistication that I wasn’t expecting, and was glad to see depicted. How it handles and embellishes that material leaves quite a bit to be desired, sadly.

Drawing upon the Inside Out comparison once again, June’s entire arc is focused on her maintaining her joyful heart and spirit in the face of great adversity. Her mother adamantly encourages her to keep that spark of creativity in her no matter how grim and hopeless her experience may be. Sound advice, though more care given to the consequences of what happens when her ideas get bigger than she can handle would have been welcome. June’s flights of fancy early on consisted in her and her mother drafting up ideas for a fictional family-friendly theme park named “Wonder Park”, with a very on-the-nose reference to how this story to going to progress mechanically. Soon, June’s ambition carries her to the point that she attempts to actually construct the fantastical machinations of her fancy with disastrous results for the neighborhood.

Despite this, the entire neighborhood (adults included) is eerily invested in this make-believe theme park that June constructed out of whole cloth in her room. What exactly is the game here? And furthermore, how exactly does the world of Wonder Park relate to the actual one? A turning point in the plot is when June diverts from her summer camp group to have a near-literal “down the rabbit hole” sequence that lands her in a dilapidated post-apocalyptic version of her fabled Wonder Park.

Thematically, it’s pretty clear as to what Wonder Park represents. The theme park is the incarnation of June’s creative psyche: weathered and unkempt due to neglect, overrun by malicious entities due to the worry and grief June has bottled up since her mother’s departure for intensive care, and lacking any attendees due to essentially being closed until further notice.  Much like the Hundred-Acre Wood, Wonder Park is populated with living versions of her stuffed animals that serve as the entertainment and maintenance crew for the attractions. Whereas characters like Tigger and Eeyore served as personified facets of the typical child’s mind, it’s not at all well-established how the narcoleptic bear Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell) or Mila Kunis’ level-headed boar Greta factor into June’s makeup as a person. Perhaps I’m thinking too hard on this. Lord knows I’m writing too hard.

A major character in this realm of marvels is a monkey named Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz) who operates as the avatar of June’s creative spirit. Peanut is typically much like June: lively, bursting with an eagerness to make things up, and gets most his inspiration from June’s mother through a charming plot mechanic. With Mrs. Bailey off to get treatment for her ailments, a clear parallel is drawn between Peanut’s creative block and June’s emotional blockage. Yes, all the material is here for a truly rewarding exploration of a youth’s struggle with loss, ostracization, and arrested development. Why doesn’t it work, exactly?

Firstly, the structure and mechanics of the plot aren’t well defined.  It’s isn’t entirely clear how Wonder Park connects to reality.  June seems to be able to walk in and out of it as though it were located in actual spacetime. She doesn’t even awaken from a dreamlike Alice. One is left wondering how powerful this kid’s intellect can be.

Also, the way the rest of the neighbors have such unironic glee for this pretend amusement park really took me out of the experience. Who knows how much in property damage June did the first time she tried to bring these ideas to life with a makeshift roller coaster? Furthermore, when it’s functional, Wonder Park itself is populated not only with June’s living stuffed animals, but with what seem to be projections of crowds of attendees. What part of June’s psyche do they represent? Is this an Inception thing? There I go overthinking stuff again…

Look, few things get me going more than great potential ruined by poor execution, and this is no exception. Some features of the execution are done quite well. There are a few set pieces near the end where I had to keep my jaw from dropping more than once. Sadly, that only accentuates the errors in the other areas. The editing is remarkably choppy, and the actors’ deliveries suggested they weren’t sure what they were saying or why a number of times. I know that I should champion excellence where I can, but potential or misused excellence is at least worthy of note as well.

Positives

Negatives

The Bottom Line

 

Tyrone Barnes

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