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Film Reviews Review: Wonder Park is like Pixar’s Inside Out on a roller coaster

June and the creatures of her make-believe amusement park in an image from the animated film Wonder Park.

Paramount Pictures

  • Wonder Park
  • Directed by David Feiss
  • Written by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec
  • Featuring the voices of Brianna Denski and Jennifer Garner
  • Classification PG
  • 85 minutes

rating

To call the beginning of Wonder Park saccharine would be an understatement. In her bedroom at night, June (Brianna Denski) and her mother (Jennifer Garner) fabricate a make-believe amusement park: Wonderland. Maintained by a group of animal mascots (with special attention to a hog, a porcupine and a bear, voiced by Mila Kunis, John Oliver and Ken Hudson Campbell, respectively) who ensure its fun and safety, the park is a wholesome place where nothing ever goes wrong. Attempting to make Wonderland a reality, June and her mother make an exhaustive, Pinterest-y model, engulfing their whole home.

But in a startlingly dark turn from family crafts, June’s mother becomes seriously ill and departs for treatment. The tonal shift is clumsily abrupt, but its results are effective. In her grief and anxiety, June forgets the theme park until one day, after getting lost in the woods, she is transported into the Wonderland of her imagination. Finding it in disrepair, shadowed by an encroaching cloud of darkness and overrun by now-evil monkey dolls called “chimpanzombies,” June must find a way to fix her park.

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Definitely on the cutesy side (which is not necessarily a bad thing), Wonder Park brings a welcomed depth to its base plot of a girl creating roller coasters. While the premise reads like a generic fantasy-adventure-comedy for kids, the film manages to intelligently traverse a wide range of emotions. June is a complex character. Resourceful, creative and adventurous, she also navigates the difficulties of loss. Hurt by her mother’s departure, we see her respond with a disavowal of their relationship. Adopting an adult role, she attempts to take care of her father, and abandons her friends and childhood passions. Denying her identity as a daughter, June copes with her grief by pretending that it doesn’t exist.

Once in Wonderland, June’s imagination is reactivated as she becomes committed to saving her amusement park. The traits she took on when she matured prematurely – panic, stress, a need for control – melt away as she becomes immersed in something emblematic of her relationship with her mother. In her quest to gain the trust of her animal friends and restore her park to its former glory, a new-found courage replaces her avoidance, and June is able to confront her negative emotions as she works to rebuild Wonderland.

Wonder Park could be compared favourably to Pixar’s Inside Out. Like that 2015 film, Wonder Park tells a story for children that doesn’t shy away from deeper psychological themes. Although softened for a younger audience, the film still tackles challenging material. Validating the experience of grief while examining how to work through difficult emotions, it neither condescends nor turns morbid. June’s connection to her fantastical hobby becomes her therapy.

While Wonder Park starts sweet and shallow, it develops into something more robust. Sometimes it’s a bit too precious, and despite its attempts at comedy, it isn’t all that funny. But as a nuanced young character, June is a refreshing creation. She shines through the glittering theme park.

Though always age-appropriate, Wonder Park is nevertheless an intricate depiction of a girl’s psyche.

Wonder Park opens March 15.

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