I’m pretty sure that the people behind Nickelodeon’s animated feature “Wonder Park” snuck a little love letter to their own childhood selves in this tribute to the power of imagination. They also bring the insight of their adult selves to the film’s most important insight: Not only do imagination and creativity enrich our lives and satisfy our souls; they are also vital for processing our most challenging moments. It is a welcome reminder for families raising the generation of children who will never remember a time when there wasn’t a screen to distract them within arm’s reach and the parents who check their social media when they stop for red lights. Plus it has the best song about math since Danny Kaye sang about the square of the hypotenuse in “Merry Andrew.”
June (Brianna Denski) and her mother (Jennifer Garner) love to spend time together imagining the details of a fabulous theme park called Wonderland. June has planned out all of the details, from the animal characters who welcome all the visitors to the merry-go-round with flying fish instead of horses. Like Christopher Robin, June has created a magic land for her toys, including genial Boomer the bear (Ken Hudson Campbell), who struggles with a hibernation-related form of narcolepsy, energetic beavers Gus (Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong), nervous porcupine Steve (John Oliver), voice-of-reason wild boar Greta (Mila Kunis), and Peanut the chimpanzee (Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz, who translates June’s plans into the park’s attractions. June does more than imagine — she builds a scale model of the park that extends through the house. And she builds a go-kart with her best friend, Banky (Oev Michael Urbas) that works very well except for the steering and the brakes, which leads to quite a wild ride through the neighborhood.
June gets into trouble for that, but there is something much more devastating ahead — her adored mother is very sick, and must leave home for some special treatment. June’s entire sense of the world is turned upside down. She destroys her model of the Wonderworld. And, as people often do when they cannot handle uncertainty in one part of their life, she becomes fixated on what she can control, trying to take care of her father by worrying much too much. The milk in the fridge is just three days from its expiration date! Better get rid of it!
On the bus to math camp, June decides it is too much of a risk to leave her father alone, so she gets Banky to pretend to be sick and sneaks out to walk home through a forest. She discovers a version of the very Wonderland she designed, but it is under siege by tiny little zombie creatures (but cute ones, not super-scary). Only she can save the day.
It is too bad that the character design is bland as written and visualized, despite the best efforts of the talented voice performers. There are unaccountable and annoying detours into crushes — Banky’s on June and Steve’s on Greta. But the Wonderland is indeed wonderful and the message of imagination as a sustaining source of comfort and a path to understanding is wonderful as well.
Parents should know that this film includes fantasy-style peril and action violence and serious illness of a parent, some schoolyard language, and some childhood and animal character crushes and a kiss.
Family discussion: Why did Peanut hide out? What kind of amusement park ride would you like to create? How do you keep the light inside you shining?
If you like this, try: “Inside Out” and “Surf’s Up”
Originally published at moviemom.com.