2019, PG, 85 min. Voices by Brianna Denski, Jennifer Garner, Matthew Broderick, John Oliver, Mila Kunis, Kenan Thompson, Ken Jeong, Norbert Leo Butz, Ken Hudson Campbell.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 22, 2019
One of the oldest fantasy standards is the magical kingdom waiting for the one true and unlikely hero to save it. For the hidden amusement park of Wonderland, that's June (Denski), a kid with endless energy and imagination. She's who the talking animals that run the park (Oliver playing to expectations as a prim and proper porcupine, Kunis against type as a warthog, Campbell as sleepy bear Boomer, and Thompson and Jeong as sibling beavers) need to save the day – and most especially, save Peanut (Butz), the monkey whose magic pen creates every thrilling ride in the park. Only June's at home with her parents and gives up on what she thinks is the imaginary Wonderland when her mother (Garner) is stricken with an unnamed disease. Now she needs the magic of Wonderland as much as it needs her.
A gutsy young girl with a spark for engineering. A vibrant adventure with real-world heartache and learning. An animated feature that empowers in the most uplifting way. But oh, if only Wonder Park could deliver on all its timely potential. Instead, it has so many baffling storytelling decisions (like, why is it called Wonder Park, not Wonderland, or even Wonder Land Park?) and weird technical glitches. There's something indefinable missing, like the timing of jokes and set-pieces is just off (this may be the year's worst sound mix, with many effects that would have added depth to scenes dumped way back in the mix). This may well be the result of a convoluted development history, after original director Dylan Brown was fired, then a trio of replacements (Clare Kilner, Robert Iscove, and Nickelodeon veteran David Feiss) were announced, only to finally arrive with no named director. It's no wonder it feels incomplete.
What is well crafted is a very traditional narrative that never feels dated. June is a classic gutsy kid with brains and moxie. The fact that she's allowed to be an engineering wiz and this doesn't make her an outcast (nor is it in any way regarded as "not something girls do") makes her story contemporary. It's even a major plot point that, not only do her parents not punish her for her more elaborate builds, but they actively encourage her.
Most important is that there's no caricatured, mustache-twirling villain, or low-grade local bullies, driving the action. June's nemesis is her own self-doubt, her belief that growing up means abandoning who she is. For all its flaws, this inspiring adventure has every ounce of its heart in the right place. Adorable as the furry guides to the park are, it never feels like they're included to sell more toys (and after the egregious product placement in the opening half-hour of Ralph Breaks the Internet, that's a big relief). Wonder Park has a splendiferous story to tell. If only all the pages were there.