June (Brianna Denski) is one of those kids you always find tearing through their neighbourhood like a wrecking ball. But not because she’s a childhood menace. She’s enthusiastic, creative, and always seeking out the next adventure. And her best trait? She wants to bring her friends and family along for her joyrides. She’s bursting with ideas and channels her creative spirit into an imaginary fantasy theme park called Wonderland. Every night, June and her mom (Jennifer Garner) invent new attractions for Wonderland and its inhabitants, a group of talking animals.
But June and her mom’s fantasy doesn’t last. When a tragic event hits June’s family, she suddenly has some growing up to do. June swears off Wonderland and prepares to leave her family for math camp. But before she reaches camp, June stumbles upon the actual Wonderland, and it’s inhabited by the animals invented by June and her mom. But Wonderland is no longer a dream destination. The rides don’t work anymore, and it’s been overtaking by vile creatures called chimpanzombies. June takes it upon herself to help her new/old friends by getting Wonderland up and running.
Wonder Park’s visuals impressed me on a technical level. The film doesn’t feature the most inspired stylistic choices. The design team play it safe with their character designs and environments. But the smaller details like textures, the characters’ fur, and the rustling leaves stood out. And I can write an entire section on Wonder Park’s use of light. The animation team really outdid themselves, and they’ve created realistic-looking light in painstaking detail. You may not even notice it until it’s pointed out. But the way they bathe scenes in light – particularly magic hour sunlight – is second to none. During minor scenes where characters stood around talking, my eyes darted around the frame. I wanted to soak up every inch of Wonder Park’s technically impressive world.
The film has no short supply of things to feast your eyes on. It’s a theme park plucked from the imagination of a young girl, after all. Wonderland lives up to its name. There’s one ride where adventurous folks sit in a round ball and wait for a mechanical arm to pick them up and hurl them across the park where a second automation snags them out of the air.
During action sequences, things get hectic, and the intensity metre gets dialled all the way up. There are plenty of chases and frantic set pieces and it’s here that Wonder Park comes up short. The screaming characters and jerky camera movements left me bored and exhausted. Everything happening onscreen melts into one cacophonous blur. I loved looking at the film’s world but not how the camera moved around in it. More creative action sequences and less frenetic cinematography would improve the action.
Wonder Park isn’t your average children’s flick. The trailer shows off colourful talking animals and zany hijinks, but the film also goes to dark places. Early on, June confronts depression and heartache. The movie is ultimately about grief and it flirts with darker themes, but it isn’t a heartbreaker either. Though, at times, it does ask you to sit with complicated feelings.
The easy comparison here is Inside Out, a colourful, creative, and heady film that dwelled on childhood despair. Wonder Park is less of a revelation, but just as brave. Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Robert Gordon’s script does an excellent job highlighting the role sadness plays in our lives. Most films dish out an instant remedy, but Wonder Park teaches us the value of grief. Most importantly, it tells us that sadness doesn’t always go away, and that’s alright too.
Don’t get me wrong, Wonder Park is still a fun and exciting busy kids’ movie. It’s packed with a solid cast of voice actors who bring their characters to life. Jon Oliver stands out as a love-sick porcupine named Steve. Denski believably conveys June’s contagious exuberance as well as her depression. Garner and Matthew Broderick are solid as June’s parents, and Norbert Leo Butz’ Peanut is the soul of the film.
Wonder Park’s cast of heroes don’t stand out the way that characters do in the best animated features. I don’t expect Boomer, Peanut, and Gus will live on in pop culture once the film runs its course. They’re fine but forgettable, and the film still works. Mostly because this story’s themes are more important than its characters and plot.
In many ways, Wonder Park is my story – I am June. We’re all June, at times. The movie shows us how giving ourselves over to creative outlets helps us manage our pain and anguish. Grief and despair are inevitable parts of life, and how we deal with hardship helps define who we are. Trying to mask or deny our issues can often fuel our inner demons. Making peace with ourselves means understanding that darkness doesn’t go away entirely; it’s part of who we are. Few children’s films would even dip their toes in these uncomfortable themes.
Wonder Park delivers an important message – one that’s almost unheard of in this genre – in a blunt manner. It features enough kooky characters, silly jokes, and colourful animation to hold kids’ attention, but powerful themes remain at work just below the surface. Wonder Park opens the door to crucial dialogues between parents and their children. And that alone is worth the price of admission.