Pity the poor children who are left at the theater to watch the tedious animated tale “Wonder Park,” and take comfort in knowing that there won’t be many of them.
Even with a corporate tie-in to Nickelodeon, and probably an ad campaign saturating “SpongeBob SquarePants” reruns, my critic-sense tells me kids in the target demographic won’t much care about this uninspired mess.
The movie’s hero is June (voiced at different ages by Brianna Denski and Sofia Mali), a daredevil who designs elaborate amusement park rides on her tablet, then tries to build them in her backyard. After one particularly dangerous ride falls apart and sends June speeding into traffic, June’s mom (voiced by Jennifer Garner) comes up with an alternative: Building a miniature park in June’s room.
June comes up with the ideas, and Mom whispers them into the ear of her stuffed monkey, Peanut, who in this imaginary scenario is the master builder of Wonderland. (Why the filmmakers wanted to court comparisons to Lewis Carroll is beyond rational understanding.)
This system allows Wonderland to flourish in June’s house, spreading to every room. But June’s playdates with Mom are interrupted when Mom becomes seriously ill and has to go away for treatment. Depressed, June boxes up all of her Wonderland creations, and the onetime daredevil becomes a safety obsessive, monitoring everything Dad (voiced by Matthew Broderick) eats, drinks and breathes.
Eventually, Dad convinces June to leave for a couple weeks to math camp. When the bus pulls over, June wanders into the woods, and discovers the remnants of a theme park. Soon, she realizes it’s her theme park, Wonderland — in disrepair, with the animal mascots she invented fending off a horde of once cute but now zombified plush chimp creatures. Turns out this Wonderland has fallen prey to “The Darkness,” a vague but obvious metaphor floating over the park.
The movie is a chaotic mess, which may have been inevitable given its troubled production history. Paramount reportedly fired the original director in January 2018, when he was accused of “inappropriate and unwanted contact” with women. (Through his lawyer, he denied the charge.) He was replaced by a trio of filmmakers, none of whom getting directing credit. Five months later, the actor who voiced one of the park mascots, a narcoleptic bear named Boomer, also was replaced after sexual-misconduct allegations. Somewhere between those two events, the movie’s title was changed.
They needn’t have bothered finishing the movie. The voice cast is adequate to the task, but only John Oliver, as a safety-obsessed porcupine, generates any laughs. The computer animation is serviceable, but only in brief flashes rises to Pixar-esque levels of oohs and ahs. Even the movie’s life lesson, about embracing one’s sadness to get to the light, is negated by an artificial ending.
“Wonder Park” is a colossal blunder that sparks no joy, and the worst part is that Nickelodeon is apparently developing it into a TV series. Again, pity the poor children.
Opens Friday, March 15, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and action. Running time: 85 minutes.