On the surface, Wonder Park looks like it might be just another one of the many, many animated features to showcase anthropomorphic animals saying and doing wacky things; the reality is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. I went into the screening expecting very little but was absolutely impressed with every facet of this movie, from the solid script, to its heartfelt emotional beats and fast-paced action, and wildly imaginative visuals. Paramount and Nickelodeon hopes to launch a franchise with Wonder Park, and this solid start is evidence that they deserve to be in the same conversation as DreamWorks, Pixar, and Disney itself.
Wonder Park centers on June (Brianna Denski), a young, creative girl who has a natural engineering talent but is a little short-sighted when it comes to the reality of how her inventions impact the folks around her. Take, for example, a fantastic (and functional) roller coaster June constructs out of materials cobbled together from her and her friends’ homes. It’s a wild ride, but it ultimately leaves the neighborhood in shambles. This simple if not so subtle scene sets up the adventure to come: June is tasked with rebuilding the theme park that’s brought into being by her own imagination but which has fallen on hard times because of neglect. Sounds pretty straightforward, but there is so, so much more to this story.
The heart of Wonder Park exists in the relationship between June and her mom (Jennifer Garner), and to a lesser extent, her dad (Matthew Broderick) and some zany extended family members. June lives in an idealized household where both parents are pretty cool … in that they’re super nerdy and encourage all of June’s interests, no matter how destructive or chaotic they might be. Luckily, June’s imagination is preoccupied with constructing “Wonderland”, a wildly fun theme park that’s overseen by walking talking animal mascots come to life and features such creative attractions as the Skyflinger (which launches guests from one side of the park to another in a clear, plastic ball) and a carousel that boasts literal Flying Fish to take guests on a ride throughout the park. It’s all run by the charismatic chimpanzee Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz) who wields inspiration whispered to him on the wind (via June’s mom) and channels it through his magic golden pen, a la Harold and the Purple Crayon. Wonderland exists in more than just June’s imagination; she also brings it to life in miniature form by building its extensive footprint and incredible attractions throughout her house, and, in a Willy Wonka-like take, she gets to see her imagination realized in full scale as a hidden, out-of-the-way theme park in the real world. This is a stunning moment for June as well as the viewers in the audience who get a very real “Let’s open the gates!” feel to seeing the park in earnest for the first time.
Wonder Park fills every scene and every frame with imagination. That’s thanks in a huge part to the script but also to Ilion Animation Studios’ gorgeous animation that brings all aspects of Wonder Park to life. The Spanish studio, which previously produced Planet 51, should be immensely proud of the work done on this film, and hopefully the sequels that follow. June’s own homemade theme park feels like exactly the sort of thing we made (or wish we could have made) as kids, crafting complicated rides and attractions from paper towel tubes and clockwork gears, while the fully realized Wonderland feels like a theme park we’d absolutely buy an annual pass to as adults. The characters are wonderfully designed with subtle imperfections and animated with realistic motions, expressions, and reactions that make them feel more human, including our animal pals. June is a delight, as is her best bud Banky, though John Oliver steals the show as the cranky, safety-obsessed porcupine, Steve. And while each of them has some cartoonish qualities–like the beaver brothers’ slaphappy tiffs or Boomer the Bear’s “delayed onset hibernation/narcolepsy”–they show some real emotional range, most distressingly shown in the usually charismatic chimp Peanut’s brush with fear, hopelessness, and depression. (Kudos to Norbert Leo Butz for his dramatic work here.) If any of these characters had felt more like caricatures than living, breathing beings with thoughts, feelings, and goals, then the emotional arc of Wonder Park just wouldn’t have worked.
When tragedy interrupts June and her mother’s time spent building the park, the park itself soon falls apart as June ceases to channel her creative energy into it. She not only dismantles the homemade miniature but unknowingly starts to tear down the very real (and very expansive) theme park that exists on the periphery of her hometown and her known reality. Just as there’s a darkness present in June that shunts her creativity to the side, so too is there a darkness that threatens to tear apart Wonderland. While June and her animal friends that run the park need to race against the clock to get Wonderland up and running again before the Chimpanzombies* can tear it all down, it’s actually up to June to rekindle her imagination if she hopes to save everything she had ever built together with her mother.
(*The chimpanzombies began their lives as Wonder Chimps, super-cute park mascots that come in over 5,200 different varieties. The arrival of the darkness corrupted them into a wave of destructive yet adorable monsters who aim to feed pieces of the park into the waiting maw of the darkness. They’re not quite the Minions that Paramount/Nickelodeon probably hoped they’d be, but they are cute nonetheless.)
As a bonus, Wonder Park opts to give June and its story an extra wrinkle thanks to its S.T.E.M. focus. This doesn’t play heavily into the plot, but it’s a great aspect of June’s character that perfectly complements her imagination. Creativity takes June and her mother’s creation of Wonderland pretty far, but to get the practical gears in motion, June has to take apart things she finds around the house and put them back together again in new ways. Taking this idea a step further, June sets out for a summer camp with a math focus (including a camp counselor full of math puns and a delightful bus ride sing-along that counts the digits in pi). June puts her creativity and engineering skills to good use in order to save the day, though it won’t be an easy road to travel.
Wonder Park walks a fine line between being too subtle for the movie’s younger viewers to hear the message and too overt and obvious, which often resigns older viewers to boredom. With the exception of one instance in which June’s animal pals lay the park’s problems on her shoulders a bit too heavily, the balance here is perfectly done; audiences of all ages should be entertained. Beyond mere entertainment, there’s something deeper at the heart of Wonder Park, something on par with DreamWorks’ fantastic How to Train Your Dragon franchise and approaching that of Pixar greats like Up, Inside Out, and Coco. And I’m happy to say that, while Wonder Park does introduce some serious material into the story and features some dark and scary imagery that conjures up memories of The NeverEnding Story and Return to Oz, the script opts not to take a cynical path. Instead, it rewards its characters and its viewers with a hopeful, optimistic, and imaginative conclusion that’s every bit as realistic as the tragedy that set the conflict’s cogs in motion to begin with.
Paramount and Nickelodeon’s new family-friendly film is an animated classic in the making, complete with a feel-good message, delightful characters, and top-notch visuals. Wonder Park is truly full of wonder from beginning to end.