152: Wonder Park Review

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Like I said in my 150th review of the Godzilla Netflix Trilogy, I’m not really finding joy in reviewing movies I would consider bad. I do it, and will not falter in my opinions about them, but I take no joy in certain films that obviously had a rough development. Many things can go wrong with making animated films, and I can’t think of a rougher development for an animated film this year than Paramount and Nickelodeon’s Wonder Park. Honestly, as far as I can tell right now, Wonder Park had probably some of the most negative PR surrounding it before release. Starting development back in 2014, Wonder Park was animated by a studio in Spain called Ilion Animation Studios, the same studio that did 2009’s Planet 51 and the upcoming film Paramount/Skydance production, Luck. Then, in January of 2018, the original director, Dylan Brown, who was an animator for Pixar, was fired after sexual misconduct, and was replaced by David Feiss, Clare Kilner, and Robert Iscove. Well, you would not really know that, because the film is notorious for not having an actual literal director credit! Not even a fake director name. No one wanted full-fledged credit. Even after that trainwreck, it has been getting bombarded with negative reviews, and may be Paramount’s first flop of 2019. Yeah, let’s check it out, shall we?

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The story follows this little girl name June, voiced by Brianne Denski. June, along with her mother, voiced by Jennifer Garner, has made this beautiful, vibrant, and outlandishly-creative theme park called Wonderland, where her stuffed animals help run it. These animals include a blue bear who greets the park guests named Boomer, voiced in the US by Ken Hudson Campbell and the UK version by Tom Baker, two beavers named Gus and Cooper, voiced in the US version by Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong and in the UK version by Ryan Fitzgerald and Wippa, a wild boar that runs everything named Greta, voiced by Mila Kunis, and a porcupine that is the safety inspector named Steve, voiced by John Oliver. However, the most important animal in the park is a chimp named Peanut, voiced by Norbert Leo Butz, who is the park icon and ride creator. Unfortunately, as June started to build a smaller scale version of Wonderland, June’s mom gets sick and has to leave for a while. They won’t say what she is sick with exactly, but that really won’t matter as the story and my review goes on. She is now stuck with her dad, voiced by Matthew Broderick, and stews away in her sadness about the possibility of not seeing her mother again. After getting sent to math camp, June escapes the bus taking her to the camp, and stumbles into a forest, and with no real explanation, ends up in Wonderland, but nature decided to take it back. She ends up seeing her stuffed animals come to life as more “realistic-looking”, and the park is overrun by this ominous cloud of darkness that has wrecked the park with the help of the Chimpanzombies. Can June find a way to get her creative spark back and save the park? What about the fate of her mother? What about the fact that this park came to life with no real reason given how? Why is there no real director credit?

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So, what happened? How did this film become such an unfocused $100 mil mess? It’s really tough to say what’s positive about it, because with every positive, comes a negative. For example, the animation is fine. It has solid enough animation, but it really doesn’t look like it cost $100 mil. Some of the movements look solid enough, but some movement styles are janky and too fast. With how fast the two beaver brothers move, you can’t really tell what they are doing when they are running or fighting with one another. The end credits literally cut out the characters from the film footage, and slaps them onto the big names. Not only that, but they either slow down or rewind the footage used to make it look like they made entirely original animation. It looks sloppy and rushed. The characters move well enough, but there aren’t that many little quirks outside of maybe Peanut and Boomer. No one has little movements that make each character feel like their own. Some of the shots and the rides are well-animated and shot well, but at other times, the camera is either too close or snapping back and forward like that one scene in Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s hard to know what’s fully going on. The film’s animation also lacks a bit of that creative spark that something like this film needs. Why don’t the animals look like their stuffed animal counterparts? They had CG models of the stuffed animals set up for each of them, but their “living” versions are just generic animals. The chimpanzombies and the Darkness could have been interesting, but due to how wonky, rushed, and undercooked the script is, they end up being very forgettable threats that you will not remember at all. I don’t really get how clunky the animation has been for Nickelodeon’s original films that get TV series. Even by the years they were released, with Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius back in 2001 and Barnyard back in 2006, they never look as good as other big studio films at those times. Oh, and Wonder Park also has this very heavy emphasis on shine and bloom effects. You know how video games during the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii generation really exploited the heck out of the bloom tool in games? That’s Wonder Park’s other notable animation issue. It looks like a short CGI film made by a student who was learning how to balance out CGI lighting tools. However, I will say that for foreign animation from Spain, it does look better than a lot of the films that I see that either look like they are almost at the Hollywood scale, or very straight-to-video.

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So, the animation is a mixed to mostly negative bag, but what about the story, writing, and characters? Well, unfortunately, the one positive/one negative trick used above is sadly usable here. The story had potential to be more complex with how June is connected to the park with the animal characters being different symbolic forms of June. For example, Peanut is her imagination and optimism, and Steve is her current mood that’s all about safety regulations. Sadly, they really don’t go into that, or expand upon it. Because of the 85-minute runtime, it’s one of the few times an animated film should have been 120 minutes. You aren’t given time to breath, or know about the characters, or how the plot works. You are never told how the park came to life, how the animals don’t know who she is, and plenty of other story elements that don’t really get fleshed out. It’s great that June is a creative and imaginative individual, and I would argue that she would make a much better protagonist if she was given a better story and overall film. If the film didn’t introduce these themes that you have seen done better in Inside Out and A Monster Calls, then we wouldn’t be criticizing how lacking in punch the overall film feels. The writing is never creative, the jokes don’t land, and I don’t remember the character’s names, their personalities, or any real scenes. Due to how much of a rush the film is in to get itself done with, you are never caring on an emotional level, and that’s a shame. Again, there is stuff that could work here, but those elements are as under-baked as most baked desserts on Chopped.

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In the end, I feel badly for the people that worked on Wonder Park. It’s the weakest animated film of 2019, and I don’t like saying that. There are elements of a much better movie hiding under all the flaws, and the fact that this entire film feels like a rush job to prepare viewers for the upcoming animated series, which may not happen now, or will go for a season before cancelation, says a lot. A lot of my issues with this film are because we know very little of what happened behind the scenes to make many of these issues center-stage, and I feel badly for the animators and production people who may or may not have had a great work schedule to get this completed. It won’t change my opinion on the film, but I would, at the very least, understand what went down. I feel like with a better direction and more time to actually flesh out certain elements of this film, it could have been a solid gem that would have found a cult following. Who knows, maybe a few years down the line we might re-review films like this, and find something we missed the first time around. I simply don’t recommend seeing Wonder Park. It will probably find its way onto Netflix in the future, and or maybe Amazon Prime. Until then, just go see How to Train your Dragon: The Hidden World, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, or try to find screenings for some of the upcoming foreign animated features coming out, like This Magnificent Cake!, Penguin Highway, or Okko’s Inn. Until then, just wait until Missing Link comes out in April. For now, since we have some time before Laika’s newest feature, how about we talk about some smaller releases that I think people should check out? Next time, let’s talk about a really cool female-directed animated feature called Maquia: When the Promised Flowers Bloom. Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoyed the review, and let’s hope we can learn about Wonder Park’s development history in more educated detail in the future! I will see you all next time!

Rating: The Worst/Blacklist