Nickelodeon has a worthy goal, but doesn’t come close to reaching it

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Wonder Park
Opens Friday 15
2 out of 5

What’s a critic to do when reviewing a film where they’re far from the target audience?

When it’s a kid flick, my strategy is to compare it to similar films that successfully achieve what they set out to do. Wonder Park tackles issues like a child’s psyche and dealing with a parent’s sickness. That places it in the same vein as Inside Out and My Neighbor Totoro — two of the best animated features ever made.

It’s a tall order to fill, and Wonder Park doesn’t come close.

The first proper animated film from Paramount/Nickelodeon since The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015), Wonder Park is very traditional and not in a good way. The look is reminiscent of films from a decade ago, the dialogue is blah, and the humour is light and old-fashioned. I was at a screening with plenty of kids and laughs were sparse.

The plot, in contrast, is remarkably ambitious. June (Brianna Denski) is a lively 10-year-old obsessed with amusement parks. In her imagination, she’s created Wonderland, a place run by a bunch of animals with physics-defying rides. Her childhood comes crashing down when her mother (Jennifer Garner, who is cornering the mom market) falls ill and must go away for treatment.

That causes June to abandon her childish exploits and adopt an overprotective attitude with her father (Matthew Broderick, befuddled as always). Her anxiety is such that on her way to summer camp she escapes to return to dad. Predictably, she stumbles upon Wonderland. But it’s nothing like she imagined. The park is besieged by chimpanzombies (just go with it), and a mysterious vortex called The Darkness is swallowing it up.

The most compelling part of Wonder Park is the pre-Wonderland portion. June has the gumption to bring her designs to life — or try at least, in the same way eight-year old me attempted to build a movie theatre in my backyard. When the  film shifts to the dilapidated amusement park, it becomes a glorified Saturday morning cartoon. The comic-relief critters are ordinary to a fault (John Oliver as a porcupine notwithstanding).

If you’re stuck for something to take the kids to, Wonder Park is okay. Just be aware it’s totally forgettable and won’t be of any help when you have the death talk with your kids (“Daddy, why does June’s mommy look so pale and brittle?”) I’ll give the movie some points for the morsel of truth it sneaks into the unavoidable happy ending: darkness never goes away.