Aside from going to the movies (natch’) what’s very very high up on the lists of kids’ fun activities? Right at the ‘tippy-top” would probably be a visit to a big ole’ amusement park. Not the traveling carnivals that go from town to town and set up for a few days in an empty field or a parking lot. We’re talking the big permanent vacation destinations like your “several flags over…” or “something land or world” with the Griswold family running in slo-mo toward the front gate. And just what could make such an excursion even more fun, aside from a multi-day express pass or unlimited refreshment vouchers? What if that place was based on your own ideas, if you were the “Imagineer” thinking up the perfect coaster or ride? Well, as this new animated movie suggests, that would truly be a WONDER PARK.

Actually, this place, in the film, is called “Wonderland” and it springs from the daydreams of precocious seven-year-old June (Sofia Mali) and her devoted fun-loving Mom (Jennifer Garner), with the encouragement of Dad (Matthew Broderick). All’s well until June (without Mom) enlists the neighborhood kids to help her put together the ultimate “Wonderland” style coaster from stuff gathering dust in their families’ garages and basements. Of course, chaos and calamity spill out into the town. But after a lengthy “time out” punishment, the family team’s back plotting and building miniature versions of their fantasy place. Then Mom has trouble keeping up with lil’ June. She’s so pale and tired that she must leave their home and travel far away to a place that will hopefully heal her ailments (perhaps a hospital or spa). The trio’s now a duo and, as the months become years, now middle-school-aged June (Brianna Denski) wants nothing to do with Wonderland, becoming obsessed with safety (particularly fixated on potential dangers to Dad). Finally, he convinces her to join her classmates on a bus trip to a math competition. But worried June finds a way off the bus and ventures homeward through the nearby forest. And that’s where she stumbles upon the “real” Wonder Land”. She’s even greeted by the ‘official mascots’: Greta the wild boar (Mila Kunis), big blue bear greeter Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), jittery porcupine Steve (John Oliver) and beaver brothers Cooper (Ken Jeong) and Gus (Kenan Thompson). The place is in disrepair because an army of now alive stuffed toys, the “Chimpanzombies”, are dismantling the rides and tossing them up into a swirling dark magenta storm cloud. June and the mascots must work together, but they can’t win without the park’s missing director/ ride builder, the chimp known as Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz). Evan if they locate him, will they save their Wonderland before it’s too late?

The filmmakers have done a pretty good job of balancing the voice cast with “name” stars and relative “up and comers” (a frequent “pet peeve” of mine is the reliance on “celeb” talent to sell an animated flick). Both Mali and Denski brings lots of youthful exuberance to the June lead with the latter taking on most of the “heavy lifting” of her traumatic turn into a safety “sentry”. Unfortunately, Garner is once again cast as the dutiful, nurturing, now almost martyred matriarch, too close to so many of her recent live-action roles. She gets the right amount of “sweetness”, but never gets to showcase her comic skills. The same might be said of Broderick (the original Simba) whose pop persona harkens to his dim, but doting dad without that “snark” that marks most of his live work (not just Bueller, but the recent TO DUST). Then there are the mascots, the “cuddly creature crew”. Most prominent (seen and heard a whole lot) is Oliver as the manic, motor-mouthed Steve. He’s an engaging comedian commentator, but his constant chatter, repeating phrases and whimpers, becomes tiresome and monotonous, as if they needed him to hammer the gags. Pixar proved (particularly with WALL-E) that the quiet can draw the viewer into the story’s world. His dominance takes away from the others, especially the talented Kunis who has little to do as the plucky and determined wild boar Greta (sad because she’s been great for so long as a regular voice on TV’s “Family Guy”). Relative newcomer Campbell brings a loveable, engaging gregarious quality to Boomer in between sudden naps (a clever gag involves his narcolepsy, called “frequent hibernation syndrome”). Just as he did in the recent Grinch feature, Thompson brings much-needed energy to Gus the beaver and is almost matched by Jeong as brother Cooper. And though, it’s more of the heroic “straight man” role Butz brings loads or warmth and charm to the courageous, clever chimp Peanut.

This flick is fairly unique in a couple of ways. It’s a Nickelodeon Movies co-production with Paramount Pictures (not that unusual), but it follows in the footsteps of JIMMY NEUTRON: BOY GENIUS and BARNYARD, in that it’s really a feature film TV “pilot” for a series on that basic cable channel that debuts later this year (so, don’t be surprised, parents). Kinda’ sneaky, eh? The other unusual tidbit is the fact that no director is credited. Of course, there was one, but he was fired after an accusation of Sexual Misconduct (it’s “Time’s Up” for family flicks too). So the main credits are to the screenwriters, Robert Gordon (actually story) and Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (both co-producers, too). And as for that script, well maybe the blame should mainly go to the marketing folks because it goes very dark fairly fast. There’s no warning that the adored mama is nearly at death’s door by the twenty-minute mark. She’s doing the “full Camille” complete with pale flesh, coughing into an ever-present scarf, and eyelids at “half mast”. Many of the tots at the Saturday morning screening needed quick “comforting” by their escorts. Not that any kids’ flick should be free of tragedy, but this seems to come out of nowhere. Aside from that, the last half hour in the park is pretty much a near-constant story treadmill of screaming, running, and bouncing that loses any real sense of urgency and drama. Some of the rides are cool (that big robot squid that tosses rider-filled orbs is a dream/nightmare) and the hordes of lil’ chimps have much of the creepy (but not too scary) menace of the winged monkeys of Oz, but it’s not enough to sustain this story for 85 minutes. The character design is serviceable as are the settings, but it’s nothing really new or engaging. It’s just a shame there’s not nearly enough of a sense of wonder in WONDER PARK. Now, please board the shuttles back to the parking lot…

2 Out of 5

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