At The Movies - Wonder Park Makes Six Flags Look Fun
By Jordan Bosch
Wonder Park is the kind of movie adults who dismiss animation would point to as evidence that it’s all mindless kids’ stuff. It’s also the kind of movie that would make many of my age bracket lament the heyday of the Disney Renaissance and how far animated film has fallen since. But don’t be fooled,Wonder Park is not indicative of what modern animation is. For proof, check out The Lego Movie 2 or How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World in neighbouring theatres. This movie’s just bad!
It’s never a good sign if a movie has no credited director. Even “Alan Smithee” implies someone was overseeing the project. But the director ofWonder Park was fired midway through production over sexual harassment allegations, and the producers finished the job without crediting anyone. This however I don’t believe would have made a difference in the films’ overall quality. It was merely a portent of doom. This is a movie that doesn’t even get the name of its own park right.
The movie is about a girl called June (Brianna Denski), who bonds with her mother (Jennifer Garner) over a fantasy amusement park they created together called Wonderland, run by a collection of anthropomorphic animal “mascots”. However when June’s mum contracts cancer and has to leave the family, it causes June to abandon her Wonderland obsession to focus more in the present and act prematurely like a grown-up. While sneaking away from camp over paranoia about her father (Matthew Broderick) -in one of the only good gags of the movie -she stumbles upon Wonderland itself, now disintegrating under the shadow of a cloud called The Darkness, and she must help the mascots to save it.
June’s whole adventure in Wonderland is quite clearly a metaphor. From the start you know the Darkness represents her loss of innocence and that in order to restore good she has to be creative again and thus embrace that innocence. It’s extremely trite symbolism and not in the least compelling.
But more troublesome is the message it seems to be sending by heavily suggesting that June’s fear and confusion over her mothers’ diagnosis is wrong, by equating that with the loss of imagination that imperils the park. I don’t know if the film intended this consciously, but it comes across, especially in scenes where characters are actively invading June’s grieving process, encouraging her to return to her Wonderland imagineering and essentially ‘get over’ her mum’s condition. And that’s a very bad thing to teach kids.
While having a safety net in imagination during a hard time can be healthy, it doesn’t mean that being concerned and serious about devastating personal issues is not. Even children in like situations should be allowed to cope at their own pace. And they certainly don’t all need a Bridge to Terabithia kind of escape.
Wonder Park reminds me a lot of that book, though is sadly much closer in execution to the movie.
It stands on the shoulders of a lot of greater works, borrowing inspiration from every metaphorical text from The Chronicles of Narnia to Inside Out. The Darkness itself quite notably resembles similar manifestations like the Nothing from The NeverEnding Story or the Black Thing of A Wrinkle in Time, merely another shapeless and ominous representation of evil.
But the story is much more haphazardly constructed than any of these. It’s tonally all of the over the place (and tone deaf as pertains to the cancer stuff), making it impossible to emotionally invest in any stakes. Twice the plot’s momentum comes to a grinding halt for extended comedy sequences that might have been something fun if they weren’t so frantic. And the script is really poor, full of every cliché one would expect in a cheap slice of diet Pixar pandering to its audience. The word “splendiforous” for example is repeated ad infinitum as one of the characters’ catchphrases, as if we don’t know it’s a signature of Willy Wonka. Obviously the cast gets the worst end of the stick in terms of this kind of writing.
Mila Kunis, possibly the highest profile actress in this movie, struggles with her directionless warthog character, while John Oliver’s dialogue as a nervous porcupine consists almost exclusively of painful one-liners that wouldn’t be out of place in one of his sarcastic parodies on Last Week Tonight.
Ken Jeong and Keenan Thompson are luckier to fade into the background a little as a pair of beavers, but the big blue bear visually emphasized in all of the marketing is voiced by little-known voice actor Ken Hudson Campbell -robbing North American audiences of his U.K. version equivalent, the great Tom Baker. None of these characters resonate in any way whatsoever and are little more than pre-packaged jokes given visual form. This stunning lack of personality isn’t confined to the denizens of the fantasy world, but Garner and Broderick have been used to this kind of middling material for years (a shame, because Garner can be a good actress). And June isn’t very interesting herself, despite her inexplicable authority over all the kids of the neighbourhood.
Wonder Park doesn’t even cater much to theme park aficionados except in the most general sense. There’s a figure who’s recognizably the Mickey Mouse stand-in and a few rides that are allusions to Disney Park attractions, as well as the meet-and-greet nature of the mascots. But the theme park aesthetic was not strictly necessary; Wonderland could easily have been a fantasy world more akin to the Lewis Carroll creation it takes its name from. The only justification is the visual expression a theme park provokes; but the movie never lives up to that, its’ animation nice in places, but too steeped in a Sony place of overindulgent energy to really capture any degree of wonder.
Strange as its premise is, Wonder Park might have had something if it wasn’t such a cynical product. If it hadn’t cheaply used cancer as an inciting incident, spring-boarded into an awful message about coping, and filled out with conveyor belt character tropes inhabiting a story that hadn’t made it past a first draft, there may have been something worthwhile in a movie about a theme park being an outlet for a girls’ imagination. But this is what we got instead, and it’s a lousy substitute.
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