Friday 12 April 2019

"Wonder Park" (Guardian 12/04/19)

Wonder Park **
Dir: uncredited. Animation with the voices of: Sofia Mali, Jennifer Garner, Tom Baker, John Oliver. 85 mins. Cert: PG

This middling half-term timekiller arrives trailing an unusually troubled production history. It may be destined to crop up in film quizzes as the first major studio release to bear no directorial credit whatsoever, the result of Pixar alumnus Dylan Brown being fired from the project after allegations of inappropriate behaviour. (The closing credits don’t even reach for a token Alan Smithee, the pseudonym traditionally deployed when a filmmaker has chosen to disavow final cut.) An anonymous committee of animation pros was subsequently assembled to complete a salvage job we can, with some generosity, describe as semi-successful. Both you and your children will have sat through many worse films that took far easier routes to the screen – which is not to say that Wonder Park isn’t also immediately forgettable.

One key issue is familiarity. Brown and co. have taken two elements that have always tested well among the under-tens – talking animals and theme parks – and snapped them like Duplo blocks into a framework that recalls the split-level reality of Inside Out. Our heroine June (voiced first by Sofia Mali, then Brianna Denski) is a spirited suburban preteen who spends her waking hours designing small-scale log flumes and loop-the-loops for her collection of plush toys. Her faith in play is first tested when her mother is hospitalised with an unnamed condition – trigger warnings may be necessary for families who’ve undergone similar experiences – then reaffirmed when she ventures off the beaten track at maths camp and discovers the Disneyland of her daydreams has become an actual thing.

The whistlestop tour we get alights upon several idiosyncratic, Pixar-ish touches. June has a funny, catastrophising vision of her pop allowing the family home to descend into crows-nesting-in-the-fridge disarray, and having the real park overrun by zombified merchandise is an amusingly surreal flourish. Still, too often it succumbs to the default mode of so much makeweight digimation: a manic movement, indistinguishable from panicky insecurity, which yanks us past anything of substance, and shucks off all but the mildest charm. This theme park exists not to explore the strengths and limitations of June’s imagination, but so the characters can be pinballed around at 100mph. The eye is caught and sometimes diverted – with its Slush Puppie palette, it’s uncommonly pretty – but very little about it sticks. 

Wonder Park is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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