Family Movie Review: Wonder Park (PG)

‘Wonder Park’ clumsily stresses the power of imagination in a story that could use more balance.

Kernel Rating: 3 (3 out of 5)

MPAA Rating: PG           Length: 85 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 6+. A parent becomes sick with an unnamed disease that forces them to travel for treatment; a young girl plans and engages in dangerous pranks, including one that almost gets herself and her friend killed in a traffic accident; a couple of crushes between characters, including a kiss on the cheek and declarations of love; a fake-vomiting incident; a child’s nightmare in which a parent is injured and the family house explodes; and two characters who are constantly slapping, hitting, and otherwise physically injuring and insulting each other, which the film plays for laughs. In the amusement park itself, there are some dangerous moments, including a volcanic explosion and the threat of violence and kidnapping from zombie-like figures.

By Roxana Hadadi

The “Wonder Park” film is not what you might expect from commercials or trailers, which amp up the movie’s funness: a young girl builds rides with her friends, engaging in thrilling hijinks; she makes friends with anthropomorphic animals who work at a real amusement park that seems inspired by her thoughts; everything is wondrous and exciting. In reality, “Wonder Park” hammers home feelings of abandonment and isolation, a film that overuses upsetting commonalities in kids’ movies—a sick parent, an evil invading force—to underline a message about creativity that didn’t need such emotionally downbeat elements to have resonance.

WonderPark1 ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewJune (voiced by Brianna Denski) has for years created with her mother (voiced by Jennifer Garner, of "Love, Simon") an imaginary amusement park named Wonder Park, where all of her stuffed animals and toys hold various responsibilities and positions. Chimpanzee Peanut (voiced by Norbert Leo Butz), with his magic marker, sketches new rides in the air and causes them to appear out of nowhere. The blue bear Boomer (voiced by Ken Hudson Campbell) greets new visitors; porcupine Steve (voiced by John Oliver) helps any visitors in trouble; hog Greta (voiced by Mila Kunis, of "Jupiter Ascending") is the park manager; and beaver brothers Gus and Cooper (voiced by Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong, respectively) handle construction and maintenance.

Each day and night June and her mother imagine new additions to Wonder Park, and create them together out of household items, engineering new mechanics, figuring out how to get them to actually work, and amazing neighborhood kids with their ingenuity. Their creation takes up every room of the house, expanding outward from June’s bedroom. But as she grows up, two events cause June to reevaluate all the energy she’s poured into Wonder Park: an incident where she tries to recreate a ride in real life and ends up destroying the neighborhood, and an unexpected illness diagnosis for her mother, who has to leave home for treatment.

Left alone with her father (voiced by Matthew Broderick), whom she loves but with whom she doesn’t have the same relationship, June becomes anxious and withdrawn. She stops playing with her friends, she worries constantly about her father’s health, and she packs up and puts away Wonder Park. Until one day, when she causes a diversion to escape from a bus taking her to math camp, ends up wandering through a forest, and comes upon what is Wonder Park, come to life. But everything is different: The park has fallen into disrepair and decay; Peanut is missing; and the other animals are distrustful of June. What does she mean when she says she created them? And how can she help them?

“Wonder Park” is admirable for all the ways it makes June atypical: She is an engineering savant, with a flair for unexpectedly fixing things and seeing patterns that other people don’t. Her interest in math and science is stressed throughout the film, which is why it’s upsetting and unexpected that a final movie twist has her abandon math camp with her parents’ approval. Her obsession with Wonder Park is singular, and the film can’t find a happy medium between depicting her pursuing friendships or activities that aren’t about Wonder Park or devoting all her energy to it.

Overall, “Wonder Park” doesn’t do well with balance. June’s relationships with her parents aren’t even, and she seems to have very little connection to her father. Regarding her sadness about her mother’s illness, the movie makes the argument that she shouldn’t dwell too much on it, which could be construed as if the film is telling children to repress their feelings. And the movie ultimately can’t decide whether what June experienced in Wonder Park was real, which muddies the movie’s message about whether creativity and imagination is important, or if magic was somehow at play.

“Wonder Park” presents a young female protagonist children will like and admire, and the amusement park sequences are often exciting. But the movie’s messaging about creativity is single-minded, and its lack of emotional nuance gives “Wonder Park” a certain kind of clumsiness it can’t shake.

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