Mid-level kids’ fare Wonder Park is colorful, silly, wholly inoffensive, creative enough to engage the little ones and doesn’t overstay its welcome thanks to a brisk 85-minute runtime. The fact that it teaches an important and simply communicated lesson to younger children about how to deal with depression and anxiety is the thematic cherry on top.
June (Brianna Denski) is a ball-of-energy daredevil who loves testing out experimental theme park rides around her suburban town. The movie opens with June and her awkward nerd BFF Banky (Oen Michael Urbas) smashing through the entire neighborhood’s fences when a ride goes off the rails—or when, to be more honest, a junky go-cart flies off some sloppily attached wooden planks. June’s father (Matthew Broderick) pays off the neighbors’ damage and June’s saddled with more chores as punishment. I can almost hear the thoughts of every parent in the theater calculating the cost of the fences and coming up with much harsher sentencing.
But there’s a sweet reason behind June’s ambition: The tests are part of a bonding project/make-believe game between June and her mother (Jennifer Garner) as they work on perfecting their dream theme park called Wonder Park. It’s a children’s paradise full of wondrous rides and attractions, like a merry-go-round made up of giant sentient fish that can suddenly pop off and fly into the sky. It’s also run by a ragtag team of anthropomorphized animated family fare tropes. Greta (Mila Kunis) is a rule-bound pig constantly worrying about the park’s safety. Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell) is the prerequisite dumb-dumb bear whose sole job it is to provide instant comedy relief. Steve (John Oliver) is the uptight British porcupine. Gus and Cooper (Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong) are the manic beavers in charge of spitting clever quips and catchphrases. Their boss is Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), a wise monkey patiently waiting for his turn to dispose of some plain but valuable wisdom to the protagonist in the third act to wrap up the themes of the story.
One day, June’s ongoing excitement and imagination for Wonder Park comes crashing down after her mother is diagnosed with the kind of undisclosed modern family movie disease that’s not too grim to traumatize little viewers, but dire enough to kick the story’s main conflict into motion. Depressed over her mother being gone for treatment, June forgets about Wonder Park and closes herself off to the rest of the world. During a school trip, she breaks away from her classmates and magically finds herself in the real Wonder Park—but this place looks nothing like the way June imagined. It’s broken, decrepit, gloomy and, to make matters worse, terrorized by creepy tiny chimp zombies who appear in the night and snatch away anyone still dumb enough to linger around. Peanut has been kidnapped by the chimps, so now it’s up to June to bring the rest of the animals together to fight against the enemy and rebuild the park to its former glory. Does she have the strength, or even the willpower, to do so?
The park obviously represents June’s depression, and how things in our lives that are worthy of love and attention might get short shrift because a tragedy disables us from giving attention to anything else. The film doesn’t really dig deeper than this analogy: The aforementioned animals don’t necessarily represent various parts of June’s personality in need of therapy; the action set pieces, as creative and kinetic as they are, don’t really go beyond their clear practical goals and motivations within the narrative. This makes Wonder Park perfectly suitable as an impetus for parents to talk to their early grade schooler children about how to handle external circumstances that make them excessively sad. Older children are a bit more complex, and might benefit from family entertainment that’s a bit more substantial in that area. My highest recommendation there would be Spike Jonze’s luminous Where The Wild Things Are.
As far as Wonder Park goes, it’s basic, but not condescending. I especially appreciated an important addition to the finale that deals with how children should handle their feelings with balance and moderation. As much as all of its cutesy animal characters strictly fit into their archetypal boxes, the film is devoid of dumb fart jokes or obvious pop culture references. Its color palette and cinematography are vibrant and diverse without causing migraines. As far as audiovisual fun for the little ones is concerned, parents can do a lot worse than 85 minutes at Wonder Park.
Writers: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec
Starring: Brianna Denski, Jennifer Garner, Ken Hudson Campbell, Kenan Thompson, Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Ken Jeong, Norbert Leo Butz, Matthew Broderick, Oev Michael Urbas
Release Date: March 15, 2019