When making movies aimed at children, there are generally two lanes you can take. Either you keep the film light and fun throughout, or you layer on some parental/family drama to give the story some emotional stakes. Disney is king of the latter category, with other studios either ceding that lane to the Mouse House or struggling to replicate its success.
The latest to try its hand at that side, to its detriment, is Nickelodeon/Paramount's Wonder Park, a film that should’ve been all about a child’s imagination and nothing else. June (Brianna Denski) and her mom (Jennifer Garner) have spent years creating the splendiferous rides and attractions of Wonderland in their home, with crafty creations taking up much of the house. But when Mom gets sick, June soon loses her desire to keep playing in that world.
Desperate to keep her mind off her mom’s illness, June’s dad (Matthew Broderick) ships her off to math camp for the summer. Halfway there, June makes a break for it and winds up in the forest, where she magically discovers a real-life but rundown version of Wonderland, complete with animal mascots Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), Greta (Mila Kunis), Steve (John Oliver), Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), Gus (Kenan Thompson), and Cooper (Ken Jeong).
Written by Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec (with, strangely, no credited director), the film eschews subtlety as the animals and June deal with a dark cloud hanging over the amusement park, trying to find a way to get rid of it. While the animals can help, only June will be able to come up with the ultimate solution and find the light in the darkness.
Done in a more thoughtful manner, the whole sick mom/sad kid aspect could work. But in a film that supposedly is all about the unlimited boundaries of a child’s imagination, adding on a heavy element that stifles creativity is unnecessary and burdensome. Instead of figuring out a story that would showcase June’s wildest rides made real, Applebaum and Nemec ruin any potential fun with their misguided attempt at emotionality.
Another quibble is relatively small, but also speaks to the lack of direction on the film as a whole. Why would you name the amusement park in the film Wonderland, but then name the film Wonder Park? The former obviously brings to mind Alice in Wonderland, so there might have been copyright issues there, but then naming the park Wonder Park makes the most sense. It’s a confusing part that could have been cleared up with a bit more thought.
The lack of overall clarity is a shame, because the animal characters are legitimately fun in the few moments where levity shines through. It’s easy to see kids clamoring for their own Peanut the chimpanzee, Greta the warthog, or even Steve the porcupine, especially since their traits are unique and each of the actors have distinctive voices.
Wonder Park doesn’t come close to holding a candle to the better animated fare of recent years, and with Disney’s 2019 onslaught soon to start with the live-action version of Dumbo, it’ll be a wonder if anyone remembers this movie at all.