If you’re watching the British version of Wonder Park you’re in for a treat, as the legendary Tom Baker is playing Boomer the blue bear.
It’s a perfect nod to nostalgic parents of a certain age (ie my age), and he certainly adds a (sorry) booming warmth to proceedings.
“Use it or lose it” could be the tagline for this film, about a young girl facing a family trauma who closes off her imagination, only to stumble across it again in a mysterious forest.
One of Wonder Park‘s strengths is a cheery disregard for health and safety, and it’s really a call to arms for kids whose lives are circumscribed by fear and who have little autonomy: its message is that your mind is a safe space where you are in control, and you can create whatever you like.
June’s fears are brought on by her mother’s illness (presumably cancer though it’s never overtly mentioned), and her going away for treatment.
Wonder Park doesn’t exhibit anything like the level of finesse when dealing with emotional pain as, say, Up did. Still, it is impressive in its focus on the anxieties that June develops.
Little June (Brianna Denski) has an incredible imagination – encouraged by her adoring mother (Jennifer Garner), together they spend hours in June’s bedroom creating Wonderland, a colourful amusement park run by her favourite toys.
An attempt to make Wonderland real leads to her building an actual rollercoaster that runs from the top of her roof to the ground, and the destruction wrought on the neighbourhood when she tests it with her friend Banky (Oev Michael Urbas) results in Wonderland being brought entirely indoors (plus a suggestion of military school from the local policeman).
But her unspoken fears over her mother’s illness leave her struggling, and her ways of coping means putting away her toys, burning the Wonderland blueprints she developed with her mum, and trying to be an adult, always checking food use-by dates for her dad (Matthew Broderick).
He sends her away to math camp with a cheery “I miss you!” note to open en route; but it’s a declaration she takes as a cry for help, and soon she’s sneaking off the bus and trying to get home through the forest.
The forest is more enchanted than scary, as red, green and brown foliage begins to sparkle with gold. There’s a sign for Wonderland, half-hidden by vines, and that old rollercoaster car which takes her into the decrepit park. The animals there are desperate and under attack, trying to continue without Peanut the monkey who disappeared on a mission to get the mechanical swings moving again (the key to saving the park, they think).
Above is The Darkness, purply-red clouds that menace the park and its remaining residents. Also menacing are the maniacally angry Chimpanzombies, a terrifying hoard who laugh at the toys as they destroy what’s left of the park, one ride at a time.
Some of the cast has been changed for the UK and Ireland release. Apart from Baker as the somnolent Boomer (an absolute hoot), the beaver twins, Gus and Cooper, also have new voices, courtesy of two YouTube stars: Joe Sugg and Caspar Lee. I hadn’t heard of either of them, but actually they do a good job. Their characters are boisterous and funny, and the two men, best friends in real life apparently, certainly manage to transfer that friendship to the screen.
There’s also Greta the warthog (Mila Kunis), the erstwhile leader of the group until June reappears; and a porcupine called Steve (John Oliver). Steve’s heart belongs to Greta, though how close she wants to get to a spiky porcupine is moot.
There’s always a journey, and here June has to learn that, as her mother always said, she is the “wonder in Wonderpark” and has the power to make things right. Its final message, too, is a reminder to every child that they are the wonder of their own imagination.
There are times when the film feels as ramshackle as the park (it’s not a top-tier children’s animated movie), but overall this is a sweet-natured if sadly all-to-necessary story.
It’s witty, pretty, and mildly exciting, and well-judged for its core audience of smaller children (that’s not to say my 9 year old didn’t enjoy it – he did, particularly Boomer and the long drawn out will-he-won’t-he career down the giant rollercoaster after what seems like an age spent hundreds of feet up in the air, squeaking towards the tipping point then away again.)
Wonder Park comes in at a snappy 85 minutes – quite enough for little ones to enjoy the sparkling gold waterfall, and the sweetie store where poor Peanut is found hiding out (wouldn’t we all hole up there, planning to reappear when the others have saved the park?), and digest the message about using your imagination.
Not only is it a safe place but it’s also where a child is absolutely in control of their own wonderland.
Watch the final Wonder Park trailer: