Frequent moviegoers recognize the signs of an emotionally jarring children’s cartoon. To cynical viewers, the warnings are an inoculation to steel yourself against emotional manipulation: the slow build of a relationship with little to no dialogue and lighthearted music a là Up or recent Academy Award-winning short, Bao. For others, they’re a cue to lean in and get the tissues ready because here it comes. And while Wonder Park has many of the tell-tale cues from its opening montage to a too-perfect family, the message and resonance come from an unexpected place.
Emotional Surprises Abound
When a young girl named June learns her perfect mother is gravely ill in the film’s first act, you expect the heartstrings to thrum at her mother’s passing. That’s not Wonder Park though, as the film lives in the space just prior to the earth-shattering event of a loved one’s death. June and her mother had been partners in imagination. Together they created a fantastical theme park that June often wanted to recreate in real life, often with a destructive result to the neighborhood. It’s not until the fictional “Wonderland Park” becomes real that the movie brings in her childhood friends and June’s emotions are made clearer. Without her mother, June’s grief had given way to a preoccupation with health and safety, and unknowingly created a cloud in her heart that corrodes the joy she had inside her. That corrosion spells destruction to her friends, who are now real thanks to voices like John Oliver, Mila Kunis, Keenan Thompson, and Ken Jeong bringing them to comedic life.
Uncertainty in her mom’s condition leads June on an adventure in the world she and her mother had created. She fights the grief that lives inside of her to keep her light alive in an uncertain time. By the film’s third act, audience members will have chosen their own dark cloud — grief, fear, depression, or something else that eats at you — as the destructive force’s ambiguity allows for adaptability in Wonder Park‘s message. That, interspersed with silly children’s comedy, make for a perfect heartfelt family comedy that teaches the power of painful emotions and your ability to help control them.
Funny In The Right Ways
Wonder Park‘s comedy is one part slapstick and one part witty banter. Contrary to many animated children’s films of the last decade, Wonder Park doesn’t rely on slipping in adult jokes meant to land with grownup audiences while flying over children’s heads. No subtly crude humor or 80s pop culture references; instead, Wonder Park doubles down on the genuine nature of its message and old-fashioned silliness that it trusts its voice actors to land. The comedic anchor comes as Steve, a British porcupine voiced by John Oliver, whose quest for survival comes second only to his crush on Greta, a warthog voiced by Mila Kunis. The personal arcs of the supporting characters are thin, with the most effort given to Peanut, the team leader who lost his confidence and went into hiding after June lost her sense of wonder. Instead of character arcs of their own, the animals of June’s Wonderland Park exist truly in a supporting sense as joyful things to be rescued.
Bookending the film are childhood crushes, outdoor neighborhood fun that we all wanted as kids, and unexpectedly catchy musical numbers, complete with a song about Pi reminiscent of Lamb Chop’s “Song That Doesn’t End.” By its end, Wonder Park left me both laughing and in tears a at kids movie that is sincerely for everyone. That’s where it catches you off guard: the story serves both children who understand it on a basic level and adults who understand it more deeply. It’s an emotional place rarely explored that gives an opportunity for Wonder Park to share its message of hope and belief. Not just generic optimism or belief in oneself, but the understanding that the battle between grief and joy is influenced by which you feed and which you starve, and that everyone in your life — especially the one you’re grieving — hopes joy wins.
What Matters Most
This review won’t spoil whether June’s mother lives or dies, but if Wonder Park is successful in its message, it won’t matter as much as you might’ve thought. Life is full of grief, but the grief can be a reminder to appreciate the joy around you. So to whom would I recommend Wonder Park? This one’s easy, as Wonder Park is easily enjoyable for the whole family, with a powerful lesson for the youngest to the oldest.
Wonder Park premieres in theaters Friday, March 15th.
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