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'Wonder Park' takes animated fantasy on uneven ride

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"Wonder Park," has its theme-park tie-in organically baked right into the premise; if only similar ingenuity had gone into the rest of this animated movie, w...

Posted: Mar. 14, 2019 12:47 PM

"Wonder Park," has its theme-park tie-in organically baked right into the premise; if only similar ingenuity had gone into the rest of this animated movie, which largely squanders a promising theme, letting a potentially touching story devolve into a frantic series of chases.

The Paramount release, produced under the aegis of the studio's kids cable network Nickelodeon, has already experienced a turbulent ride off screen concerning the project's leadership.

The concept's key wrinkle involves grappling with the illness of a parent, and its impact on a child. In this case, that would be eight-year-old June (voiced by Brianna Denski), a wildly imaginative girl who along with her mom (Jennifer Garner) has dreamt up a fabulous amusement park called Wonderland, the source of a shared playful fantasy.

When mom gets sick, "Wonder Park" feels rather brave. While dead and dying parents have long been a staple of Disney movies, the scenario strikes a little closer to home when mom or dad is human, as opposed to an anthropomorphic lion or deer.

June is understandably unsettled by her mother's condition, and her dad (Matthew Broderick) struggles with how to handle the situation.

It turns out, though, that the child's grim mood has taken a toll on Wonderland, with the girl stumbling into that alternate reality -- about a half-hour into the movie -- forcing her to try to rescue her creation's colorful inhabitants, consisting of a rather nondescript group of talking animals seemingly designed to sell plush toys.

At that point, "Wonder Park" begins to run off the rails, lacking enough heft to sustain the premise. Basically, June and her pals (voiced by Mila Kunis, Ken Jeong, Kenan Thompson and John Oliver, among others) careen from one relatively uninspired crisis to the next without much sense of jeopardy, loudly racing across the park on some sort of elaborate contraption.

There's obviously a rich history of children finding their way into fantasy worlds in which they are elevated to heroic status. "Wonder Park" also joins a long tradition of movies that celebrate imagination and its significance as a refuge from harsh realities.

Still, the bar on animated movies has been raised not just by the usual suspects, but also relatively new players like Sony, which brought a dazzling visual flair to "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse."

Viewed that way, "Wonder Park" feels like the kind of mild attraction that younger kids might enjoy when it hits secondary platforms. It's just not an adventure that's worth the price of a ticket or standing in line to see.

"Wonder Park" opens March 15 in the US. It's rated PG.

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