Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Directed by: None listed
Spoiler warning: I’ve never written a spoiler-filled review before, but within my critique of this film, I wasn’t able to get around it. If you intend to go in as clear as possible, bookmark this and return after. For all others, proceed with caution.
WONDER PARK could’ve been one of the better, more daring and robust animated features this side of Pixar’s INSIDE OUT. However, the filmmakers failed to do one important thing: Kill the mom.
Hear me out. The feature being advertised – a slapstick comedy involving a young girl, who dreams up an amusement park populated by talking animals – bears only a passing resemblance to the actual film. In reality, this is a coming-of-age dramedy about a tween figuring out her journey through the grieving process by way of the sprawling amusement park she and her sickness-stricken mother created together. It’s exquisitely animated, eloquent in its lessons on handling sorrow, and crafty when it comes to the park’s design. But none of this makes any emotional impact because the filmmakers didn’t commit to what was very likely their original creative decision – that Mom was supposed to die early on. It’s clearly hinted at multiple times, and the story is obviously structured to build on that catalyst. But their ballsy allegory is castrated.
When fiercely independent and intelligent June was young (voiced by Sofia Mali), she loved to spend time with her caring mother (voiced by Jennifer Garner) imagining elaborate plans for a gigantic, well-attended amusement park they named “Wonderland.” It’s a magical, sun-drenched place where talking animals greet patrons and engage the imagination in order to entertain. Inside are a multitude of one-of-a-kind rides, unique foods and games galore. June and her mom would build dioramas that would spread from her room to the entire house. Even the neighborhood kids would come by just to be swept away by June’s captivating spell.
All this changes when Mom gets a devastating call that she’s sick (they avoid saying with what disease) and has to be sent far away for experimental treatments. I’d be lying to you, dear reader, if my own mother’s crippling cancer diagnosis didn’t flash into my mind. The sequence is handled much in the same tone as the tear-jerking montage in UP. It’s gut-wrenching, as we figure that there’s no way mom is ever going to be able to recover. They say their goodbyes as the golden hour light turns into a much cooler color palette and Dad (voiced by Matthew Broderick) chauffeurs Mom away, possibly for good.
Time passes, and June (now voiced by Brianna Denski) blossoms into a tween. The childish whimsy of Wonderland has been boxed up and put away. She’s forlorn, neurotic and overprotective, especially when it comes to her father, whom she is convinced will die if not for her hawk-eye view. She’s also shut out her best friend Bunky (voiced by Oev Michael Urbas) and snaps at her aunt, who’s pushing her to open up memories that are now psychological wounds to her. All of these developments are indicators that June’s sadness stems from Mom’s absence in her life, and moreso, Mom’s absence from the planet. Yet no one mentions Mom’s status at this point – not because it’ll upset June, but because it’s a scene that’s been scrubbed altogether. What person can survive an experimental treatment for a debilitating, life-threatening illness for more than a year? My own mother couldn’t. If June’s mom survives, will it feel like a totally unsatisfying and unrealistic cop-out? It does.
In a fit of blind, grief-fueled rage, June throws the Wonderland blueprint into the fire, thinking it’s gone forever. But much like the chimney smoke in MARY POPPINS, the floating atmospheric ash acts as siren call for help. And, one summer day, June finds herself smack dab in the middle of her own creation hidden deep in the forest. Instead of it brimming with life and happiness, it’s now a decaying, desolate mess overtaken by minion-like “chimpanzombies” terrorizing the park’s animal staff and a dark, destructive tornado-like hole in the sky. It’s a metaphor. June’s journey will be about learning how to deal with the delicate intricacies and sneaky, overwhelming nature of grief, working through it helping to save others as well as herself.
Without someone to guide the picture (former director Dylan Brown was fired in early 2018 over “inappropriate and unwanted conduct”), pacing issues and wild tonal shifts occur. If it’s not enough that June’s real world resolution negates her entire arc, it takes a very long time for her to even arrive at the park and start the healing process. Act one is filled with many repeated emotional beats, seeing June put her imagination to use and collaborative playtime with mom. The act of getting her to a place of literal discovery is plodding in nature. She’s sent to math camp where there’s an extended song sequence on the bus as the campers sing. The sequence involving park greeter/ narcoleptic blue bear Boomer (voiced by Ken Hudson Campbell) awakening on a rollercoaster is loud filler that doesn’t contribute to the character-driven narrative and only adds to the run time.
Despite the problems that tend to overwhelm the narrative, evidence of a beautiful, sentimental film – one that gives people of all ages the tools and coping mechanisms to deal with unimaginable loss – shines through. Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec’s screenplay is dotted with heartening dialogue like Mom’s words of wisdom when she leaves her daughter, to “keep the light inside you shining bright.” It’s mirrored later by June’s enlightened sentiment, “The darkness isn’t gone. But maybe it’s there to remind us of the light that surrounds us.” They effortlessly draw parallels between the fantasy land’s plight (and that of the characters within) and June’s internal struggle with the darkness in her real world, which adds innumerable stakes to her existential crisis.
It’s heartrending to see a female protagonist that doesn’t pander to young kids in the audience. She’s a young girl actively putting her engineering skills and imagination to good use. Gus the beaver (voiced by Kenan Thompson) expressing “What the chuck,” is another earned moment, at least when it comes to levity. Plus, the animators give this a crackling energy. The park’s wide-ranging designs (from its sci-fi, western and carnival influences) induce a child-like sense of wonder. We see formative events unfold through June’s POV, whether that be her out-of-control go-cart across town, or her meltdown after attempting to rescue her blueprint from the fireplace.
Though it’s not all bad, what’s lousy has a stranglehold on what’s good. What could have been wonderful leaves audiences wondering what went so wrong.
WONDER PARK opens on March 15.