Reminiscent of Pixar’s 2015 hit Inside Out, Wonder Park is set almost entirely in the mind of a young girl coping with drama. While Inside Out gave us young Riley and her traumatic cross-country move (and -ick- broccoli pizza), Wonder Park focuses on June (voiced by Brianna Denski), a young girl dealing with her mother’s sudden (unnamed) illness and subsequent departure for treatment.
There’s plenty of opportunity for maudlin sentimentality, to be sure, but screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (whose best-known credit, oddly, is Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) wisely avoid overdoing it, instead giving the kids in the audience a fun and generally well-crafted ride.
June and her mom (Jennifer Garner) spent years creating Wonderland, a tremendously imaginative theme park out of toys, construction paper and all manner of household objects. In the corners of her own mind, June takes it a step further, populating the park with lovable talking animals, oodles of razzle-dazzle, and some of the awesomest rides ever conceived. But when her mom gets sick, June retreats into a “darkness” and summarily gets rid of every last bit of the park, wanting nothing to do with it anymore.
Left alone with her well-meaning but hopeless dad (Matthew Broderick), June is convinced that she now needs to become the head of the house (she envisions her father binging on pizza watching TV all night without mom around), so while in the process of being shipped off to her annual Math Camp field trip, June makes a break for it to scurry home. She only gets as far as the woods, though, before her imagination takes over and drops her into Wonderland. And Wonder Park, finally, kicks into gear. (Your guess is as good as mine on the disjointed naming convention.)
June meets up with all her imaginary pals, including big ol’ bear Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), beaver brothers Gus and Cooper (Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong), and wild boar Greta (Mila Kunis). There’s no time for pleasantries, though―the park is being overrun by marauding Chimpanzombies, and there’s a huge storm cloud called “The Darkness” looming on the horizon. (Yes, thatDarkness.) Naturally, June has to band together with her friends to save her imagination—er, the park—before it’s destroyed forever.
Since the film has no credited director, following the firing of Dylan Brown near the end of production for sexual misconduct, the kudos instead go to cinematographer Juan García Gonzalez and visual effects supervisor Javier Romero Rodriguez, who turn what might have been a fairly forgettable and pedestrian animated flick into something that pretty much delivers across the board.
Along with the eye-candy visuals and gobs of 3D-tastic goodies (it has the same whimsical feel as, say, second-tier features like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballsand Rio), Wonder Park still has time for an appropriate amount of heart and heft. With a little bit more work, it may have been Pixar-level good, but as it is, it gets by on being a cute little film that shows us all how powerful and fun an imagination can be. And that’s a lesson certainly worth 80 minutes in a movie theater.