Perhaps it’s a post-“Inside Out” phenomenon that animated films aimed at children need to tackle complex emotions or psychology, translating it into terms kids can understand. This is the case with “Wonder Park,” a film that is part “Roller Coaster Tycoon,” part lesson on grappling with the fear of losing a parent. It’s a complicated dynamic where both story lines seem deeply at odds with each other. The wonders of Wonder Park are dampened by the pall of grief that the protagonist is experiencing, while the wacky amusement park antics prevent the story from going especially deep.
André Nemec, Josh Appelbaum and Robert Gordon collaborated on the screenplay, but no director is credited after animator Dylan Brown was fired by Paramount for inappropriate conduct during production. At the surface, the film seems like a fantastical — or as the characters might say, “splendiferous!” — romp through a magical amusement park operated by talking animals, but the story itself is deeply rooted in grave family issues.
Wonder Park has been dreamed up by June (voiced by Brianna Denski) and her mother (Jennifer Garner), who whisper their designs for the theme park into the ear of a stuffed chimp, Peanut. In June’s imagination, Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz) uses his magical marker to craft the outlandish new attractions, like a carousel made of flying fish. But all the wonder goes out of Wonder Park when June’s mother has to leave home to be treated for an illness. June stops playing with her friends or dreaming up new designs for her park, instead developing an obsessive-compulsive obsession with keeping her father (Matthew Broderick) healthy.
So where does the world of Wonder Park connect with this more serious story? After June bails out of the bus ride to math camp, she wanders into the woods, enters a portal and finds herself at the amusement park of her dreams. The film doesn’t present this as a dream, fantasy or hallucination. It’s the world June and her mom created in their minds, and now June has to save it … which means she’s saving herself, because she is, of course, the wonder in Wonder Park.
The second and third acts of this admittedly brief film involve June teaming up with the gang of animals that runs Wonder Park, a warthog (Mila Kunis), bear (Ken Hudson Campbell), porcupine (John Oliver) and pair of beavers (Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong), to save the park from “the darkness” that has enveloped the creatively blocked Peanut. It’s also turned all the cute little plushies into a cheerful, murderous zombie horde. Getting the gears turning on Wonder Park is just the challenge June needs to use her brains and bravery, learning along the way that she only needs belief in herself to be creative.
There are some colorful and imaginative set pieces, and the voice performances from Oliver and Garner are especially excellent, but the tone of ‘Wonder Park” is odd as the gravity of June’s real-life issues invade the world of Wonder Park. Imbuing a story like this with issues of grief and trauma can be a good lesson for kids, but it just makes the whole affair that much less splendiferous and that much more solemn.
Katie Walsh is Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: PG, for some mild thematic elements and action
Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes
Playing: PG, for some mild thematic elements and action