There’s not much wonder in the film, but when it’s there, it’s there.
Conquering the anxieties of the real world with the profound education of imagination is a common theme in the realm of animated films. Wonder Park, the latest from Paramount Animation (whose credits range from Sherlock Gnomes to Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa), is no exception to this rule. We’ve all seen this story before; a child deals with tragedy by escaping into an imaginative realm. Hell, it isn’t even limited to children’s films, as movies like Pan’s Labyrinth will show you. Wonder Park is very much a children’s film, however, and that’s fine. Because as familiar as this story may be to us, it’s likely the first time many of the younger viewers are experiencing certain topics and emotions.
From that lens and that lens alone, Wonder Park is certainly no failure. It’s fun and earnest. It’s bright, colorful and fast. It’s also emotionally honest. Our child in question, June (Brianna Denski), is dealing with the very specific trauma of having a mother (Jennifer Garner) in the hospital being treated for a debilitating illness. Wonder Park precisely captures the uncertainty of dealing with a loved one’s life-threatening illness, and while the concept of death is never much discussed in the film, it’s undeniably there. For a child, there’s no looking past that this subject matter could be absorbed with a stir of newfound emotions. It’s no Bambi’s mom, but it’s something, and kudos to Wonder Park for bringing the topic to the screen without any emotional tackiness. It’s the film’s strongest element, one which could lead to slight sniffling and eye moisture during the film’s poignant climax.
The rest of the film plays it easy, relying on a story arc that is certainly creative yet derivative of so many family films that have come before it. The three-act structure is accurately achieved, there’s exactly the right amount of goofy side characters and everything falls into motion like clockwork.
Obsessed with roller coasters and fun, June and her mom spent the former’s childhood building a model amusement park throughout their entire house (deemed “Wonder Land,” which is a nagging annoyance when you consider the title of the film). After tearing it down due to her anger over her mom’s sickness, June later stumbles upon a real-life version of Wonder Land, but it’s in peril. So it’s up to June and her merry band of animal sidekicks to save Wonder Land, all while June learns a lesson about never giving up your light during dark times. Oh, there’s also some slight God allegory in relation to June and her mom being the creators and controllers of all the animal characters, but that’s merely a strange sidetrack that never gets expanded upon.
The directions the film takes plus all its adventurous elements are painstakingly predictable, yet there’s a charm that can’t be denied in the film’s overall emotional effect. Kids will likely love it and adults will either tolerate it or settle in for the ride. There’s not much wonder in the film, but when it’s there, it’s there.