'Wonder Park' ★
It's safe to assume that any animated movie made for children will probably not entirely cleave to reality. When a tale pretty much starts off with a talking mouse, you know things are going get weird from time to time.
The problem with “Wonder Park,” which is set in a magical theme park, is not the element of the fantastical. The problem – one of many – is that the story can't seem to weave that element into a narrative that makes sense. To put it simply, “Wonder Park” can't keep the wonder and the park on the same page.
That story begins in Wonderland, a place inhabited by a group of furry park mascots. Their leader is Peanut (voiced by Norbert Leo Butz), a monkey who creates the park's rides by waving around a magic marker (and I mean “magic” literally).
It turns out that Wonderland isn't real, but the product of someone's imagination: a little girl named June (voice of Brianna Denski), who dreamed it up with her mother (Jennifer Garner). After Mom is diagnosed with a mysterious illness and goes away for treatment, June, a precocious kid with a taste for danger, puts the notion of Wonderland aside and becomes dedicated to safety and security, rather than fun. But while on her way to math camp one summer, June escapes from the bus, intending to return home to be with her father. En route, she stumbles across – wait for it – Wonderland.
The visitors have all left. Rides are crumbling. Peanut is missing, and the rest of the mascots are under threat from something called “chimpanzombies”: stuffed-animal prizes from the park's games of skill that have come terrifyingly to life. June and the mascots must team up to save the park, which was, apparently, real the whole time.
Or was it?
Much of the movie feels like filler. Shots are often overlong; scenes drag or are entirely unnecessary. If June's adventure in Wonderland is the engine that drives the story, why does it take nearly 40 minutes to get there? Pixar can tell us about childhood sweethearts who grow up to marry and have a long, happy life together – and all in the first 10 minutes of “Up.” Why must we spend what feels like hours watching one scene after another demonstrating that June likes to build stuff?
Still, she's a compelling-enough character. It's nice, for once, to see a girl on-screen with a knack for engineering and a fondness for math. But June is also the only one in the movie with any sort of depth or character development. Each of the animals she pals around with has one - if any - defining characteristic. (They're all on the level of: Steve the porcupine is nervous and can also shoot needles from his body. Never mind the fact that a wildly creative kid has invented an entire amusement park, and we're supposed to believe that the best name she can come up with for a porcupine is “Steve.”)
Worse yet, the visuals are dreary, and the colors muted. That's another mystery, since Wonderland is supposedly based on a child's mind. On the plus side, there is a very funny song about the number pi.
“Wonder Park” might have made a charming short film - perhaps about how grief affects a child and how creativity can be a powerful response to that. As is, it's a pointless and meandering meditation on, well, nothing. There's no director credited either, the result of the original filmmaker, Dylan Brown, being fired for what Paramount said were inappropriate sexual comments and behavior.
That's a shame. But it's also a shame that a movie about one girl's soaring imagination falls completely flat.