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The genre of the family film has found itself in a state of evolution, with offerings like Disney/Pixar's finest, and most recently the conclusion to the How To Train Your Dragon franchise, raising the emotional bar for other future family films to try and cross. It's harder to get away with what most kids' movies could have passed off as entertainment, and Wonder Park happens to be the latest example of that phenomenon. While Wonder Park certainly tries to mix emotionally mature beats into its story centered on whimsy and imagination, it ultimately falls short, due to a story that has an idea, but doesn't know how to properly tell it.
In Wonder Park, we're introduced to the Bailey family – composed of June (Brianna Denski), a Disney Imagineer in the making, and her parents (Jennifer Garner and Matthew Broderick). June and her mother create the titular park in her room, using her imagination as the engine to make it all happen. Through a series of real world incidents, it becomes harder for June to create the world that she once loved. That doesn't help when she is enlisted by various mascots to save the park, once she accidentally stumbles into it for real.
Wonder Park has a story that it wants to tell its audience, and it's abundantly clear that all the pieces included are supposed to form a more cohesive whole than the film eventually presents. There are beats in this movie that I know were ripped from the Disney/Pixar playbook, specifically from one film in particular, which won't be named for purposes of spoilers. But even with those time-tested, pre-fabricated pieces of story in place, the film lacks the one thing that would have tied it all together: proper character development.
I don't feel like June and her parents are introduced enough to really sell the emotional punch that Wonder Park is trying to put out there. If it was more of a stock “growing up” film, where one parent approves and one disapproves of June's seemingly childish ways, then that sort of short hand would be enough. It's all that a frivolous kids film about the power of faith and imagination would need for set up. But with this film running close to an hour and a half, the first act curveball this movie throws isn't the sort of thing you tackle in that sort of film.
That's not to say that Wonder Park doesn't have some sort of charm. In particular, I thought that the visual design of the film was absolutely spectacular. Some movies about imagination take short cuts, and generally underwhelm with what their protagonists dream up. But June Bailey's amusement park is quite breathtaking when you see it first hand. These are rides that could only come from a child's overactive imagination, and they don't skimp on the whimsy or color either.
To that extent, even the mascots in Wonder Park are pretty amusing, with their warm-hearted, crowd-pleasing natures being the most heartwarming aspect of the film's story. The all-star cast of Mila Kunis, Ken Jeong, Keenan Thompson, and John Oliver all lend their unique personalities to the characters they inhabit, making for a cast of interesting characters to help shepherd this young girl through a pretty dark time.
That said, the one relationship that should have been more developed is that between June and Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), the in house architect of the park. This is, again, the biggest flaw of Wonder Park's narrative, as it's ready and raring to go with pushing the plot; but it doesn't put the right character notes into place to make us truly care. Those moments between June and Peanut really did make me care, and I just wish there were more to truly connect the world of the park to the world of June's reality.
Wonder Park is visually stunning, and is a marvel to look at; but it still feels like one of those movies put into theaters solely so parents can keep their kids busy until the next big kids film drops into theaters. As far as that sort of film is concerned, you could do a lot worse than Wonder Park, and again, it's only about an hour and a half, so it's not a horrific slog. However, measuring this film up to the better examples of the genre is something I would not recommend, as it pales in comparison.