Nickelodeon’s latest family film is a boilerplate adventure that roller-coasts on its own basic competence.
It’s not uncommon for adults to bemoan their loss of childlike wonder and innocence – after all, nothing can match the creativity of a mind untethered by the limitations of reality. As such, a great deal of children’s media is dedicated to the imaginary world of children. The best of these stories use the fantastic to help us navigate the real world and discover the truths that can only be found in fiction. The worst of these stories mistake creepiness for invention and make the audience cringe instead of think. Wonder Park, directed by David Feiss, falls in the middle of the spectrum; it pushes no boundaries, so it can neither be inspiring or insipid. It just is.
The titular park is a place called Wonderland, the brainchild of the imaginative June (Brianna Denski) and her mother (Jennifer Garner). Every day, the pair use models and toys to build up the park and its mascots: their leader Greta the Boar (Mila Kunis), safety manager Steve the porcupine (John Oliver), park greeter Boomer the Bear (Ken Hudson Campbell), beaver brothers Cooper and Gus (Ken Jeong and Kenan Thompson) who make wooden art for the guests, and park engineer Peanut the chimp (Norbert Leo Butz). Unbeknownst to June and her mother, Wonderland and the mascots exist in an alternate dimension, and they can hear their ideas and use them to create the park.
Unfortunately, June’s mother falls ill with a mysterious illness (presumably cancer) and must leave town to visit a specialist. The stress and fear caused by the situation make June abandon Wonderland and burn her blueprints for the park in a fit of rage. To help take her mind off things, June’s dad (Matthew Broderick) sends her to math camp, but June, convinced her dad will die if she isn’t there to take care of him, escapes. On her way home June spies the remnants of her burnt blueprints, which magically lure her to a path that leads her to the Wonderland dimension. But the Wonderland she created is now in ruins, slowly being destroyed by sentient clouds called “The Darkness.” It’s up to June to team up with the park’s mascots to defeat The Darkness and save the park.
While Wonder Park is ostensibly a love letter to a child’s ability to think outside the box, the film is woefully constrained by convention. The film’s visuals are more than a little unimaginative, to say nothing of the character design, both of which feel more like Country Crock commercials. This would be understandable if this mundane style was used as a juxtaposition to a visually striking Wonderland, but the park is just as naturalistic as the real world. While Wonderland has some fantastical rides (like a carousel that turns into literally flying fish, and a ride that flings you to the other side of the park), they’re mostly just bigger and better versions of regular rides. The only truly out-there attraction is a “Zero-G” room, where the characters bounce in a surreal multicolor ball pit. It was one of the few places that utilize the fantastical nature of the concept, making the rest of the park duller as a result.
While Wonder Park is ostensibly a love letter to a child’s ability to think outside the box, the film is woefully constrained by convention.
One would think that, at the very least, the mascots of the park would be memorable. After all, the film is produced by Nickelodeon, which is famous for slapping Spongebob Squarepants on almost anything. If Nick knows anything, it’s creating iconic characters that can grip the imagination of children and adults alike. But there’s nothing iconic, or even memorable, about Wonder Park – the mascots are regular animals who are lightly stylized but aren’t much different than any other generic cartoon animal. Personality-wise, they have their quirks: Steve is obsessed with trivia and skipping, Boomer is a narcoleptic worrier, and the beaver brothers are always bickering; but despite the game voice cast, the characters aren’t really given time to shine.
There is a lot of buildup to June entering Wonderland – it takes roughly a half hour to set up June, her dilemma, and the park itself. Ostensibly, this is a good thing, since it takes the time to establish June’s love of inventing, her relationship with her mother and the emotional toll her mother’s illness has taken. With Wonder Park’s brisk sub-90-minute runtime, it takes its time establishing June’s character and motivations in the first act but devotes most of its time in Wonderland to action set pieces. This comes at the expense of time that could be used to develop the relationship between June and the mascots. Everything about their interactions feels rushed, especially since the mascots don’t know who June is. They trust her unquestionably until they find out she’s the reason The Darkness is there, then they don’t trust her until it’s convenient for the plot for them to do so. Despite the concept of the movie revolving around a child’s imaginary park coming to life, there is more happening outside Wonderland than in it. So what was the point of having such a fantastical setting?
This isn’t to say that Wonder Park is a bad film. The cast does all right, the villains (especially the zombie dolls) are imaginative, the animation is decent if rubbery and boilerplate. While the movie isn’t particularly funny (the script depends more on a generally silly tone than telling actual jokes) it’s still enjoyable. Wonder Park isn’t unbearable, just unmemorable.