Imagination is the Key to Charming ‘Wonder Park’

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CHICAGO – Most animated films depicting the “family” often includes a parallel lesson about togetherness or some such domestic symbolism. In “Wonder Park,” the lesson is how the spark of imagination can keep a childhood alive. When that spark is temporarily dosed, the destination of the title also suffers.

The hero is a little girl, who has an interest in building things, which lights up her life through a made-up amusement park. Because the park is depicted in actuality as a parallel form, the conduit to its creation comes from the girl (and her Mom) and becomes spectacular as it is built. This is a nice bit of multi-universe, existing in the child’s mind, and an understandable way for kids to experience how thoughts become action. Although this type of “come to life” world has been done in films like the Toy Story series and “Inside Out,” the different spin given to “Wonder Park” is another take, delivered with adventure and heart.

June (voice of Brianna Denski) has a precocious and inventive mind. She builds an amusement park – with the help of her mother (Jennifer Garner) – called Wonderland. The ideas for the attractions are whispered into a stuffed monkey named Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), and it all comes to life as the park exists, through the monkey’s magic light pen.

The Cast of ‘Wonder Park’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Wonderland features greeting bear Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), busy beavers Gus (Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong), a boar named Greta (Mila Kunis) and her porcupine crush Steve (John Oliver). The park is threatened when June’s Mom becomes sick, and her heartbroken daughter’s imagination goes dark. June will have to visit the park to set things right.

There is sadness in the film when the Mom gets sick, and the parallel of June’s Wonderland crumbling will be obvious even to the little ones in the audience, which is a direct and unusual symbolic connection. The park itself is fairly out-of-this-world monumental, as a unfettered child’s mind can be, and to have June actually come and save it is pretty cool. Not only is she a math/engineering whiz, she is an outside-the-box problem solver … a pretty good additional inspiration within a kid’s movie.

Nearly stealing the story is John Oliver’s Steve the Porcupine, whose pessimism is a welcome counterpoint to the sticky sweetness of gung-ho heroism. It sounded like many of his lines were jokey improvisations straight from his “This Week With John Oliver” HBO series. Interestingly, Peanut the Monkey seems more important than anybody in the beginning, but gets shuffled to the back as he is hiding away after the park goes dark. It’s a great day when you can analyze the relative importance of Peanut the Monkey.

Mom (voice of Jennifer Garner) and June (Brianna Denski) in ‘Wonder Park’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

The story is deceptively simple and tight (85 minutes), but delivers a potpourri of modern animation visual treats. Wonderland itself is part steam punk (June likes gears) and Great America, and has a colorfully graphic landscape both in full bloom and partially shut down. Adding a bit of reality with an ill mother and June’s shutdown was risky, but it paid off in the visit to her imagination. As we get older, do we remember the things that brought us to who we are?

Why isn’t is called “Wonderland,” if that is the name of the amusement park depicted in the film? Turns out there is another movie named Wonderland, a retelling of a murder story involving porn star John Holmes. I guess that “land” will best be saved for another time and place.

“Wonder Park” opened everywhere on March 15th, in 3D/IMAX/RPX and regular screenings. See local listings for theaters, format and show times. Featuring the voices of Brianna Denski, Jennifer Garner, Kenan Thompson, Ken Jeong, Mila Kunis, John Oliver and Matthew Broderick. Written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec. Directed by Dylan Brown. Rated “PG senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

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© 2019 Patrick McDonald,

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