I recently watched Wonder Park. A children’s film that, judging by the trailer, I was going to wish I was watching at home rather than the cinema. It certainly didn’t come across in the trailer as the sort of film that would retain my attention. I couldn’t have been more wrong! Not only did it capture my attention, I left feeling like my child had witnessed a really important life message.
The trailer depicts Wonder Park as a typical, haphazard rollercoaster of a film following an adventurous young girl who likes and imagines a stupendous theme park. The talking animals appealed to my four year old but it looked like the type of film I’d happily give a miss. Little did I know the film actually harboured a strong message that I feel is so important nowadays.
Picture this, it’s a Sunday afternoon, Mummy is hung over from a rare mums night out. Daddy is desperate for a “family day” and the four year old is slightly cranky and eager to get his own way after going to bed 4 hours late the night before.
Both George and myself are pretty familiar with getting our own way. Hubs says he finds it comical to watch the pair of us battling to decide on who is going to prevail. I was eager to do something indoors and with limited physical exertion. So I suggested a trip to the cinema. In the hope we could see the remake of my childhood favourite, Dumbo. After foolishly showing an over tired George the trailer, he declared Dumbo wasn’t to his liking.
After scrolling through the available children’s films showing at the cinema that day, George decided he would only be happy seeing Wonder Park. The trailer we watched, shows a young girl, June, creating a miniature theme park (Wonder Park) with her mum.
We see her in a makeshift roller coaster, hurtling down the roof of her house, discovering a secret roller coaster carriage in the woods. Liaising with magical talking creatures and chimpanzombies, more roller coasters, “the darkness”, a few more roller coasters and it all seems very light hearted, fun and lacking in the usual gags that you think are for the adults. Without those I felt like the film was only aimed at children.
So long story short, I reluctantly opted for the easy life and we bought our tickets for Wonder Park.
As the film started, the story presented with a young girl, June, who has this beautiful relationship with her Mum. Together they imagine and build a whole mini theme park, Wonder Park, that grows throughout their house. They create talking animal characters, Boomer, Gus, Cooper, Greta, Steve and Peanut.
Peanut is pretty pivotal character. He is a chimpanzee who holds a magic marker whilst you whisper the latest Wonder Park idea to make it come true. June and her mum have a stuffed toy version of each character and so June’s mum whispers the latest idea they have imagined, into Peanuts ear. In Wonder Park world, Peanut is the ride creator and is thankful to the magical “voice from the sky”, giving him all the ideas….until they stop.
June’s Mum is sick. Really sick. She has to go away for treatment but you as a viewer are left with the heart wrenching uncertainty of whether she will return. You feel June’s pain, as an 8 year old child who is suddenly conscious that parents aren’t actually invincible.
We watch as June feels the overwhelming urge to become the grown up. She packs Wonder Park away, bit by bit. Despite her Mum urging her to continue it in her absence as June is really the one who puts the “wonder into Wonder Park”
June’s first attempt to whisper into Peanuts ear makes her feel the true enormity of her Mum leaving. She packs away Wonder Park, withdraws from her friends and seems to lock herself away at home, cleaning “an already clean house”. Her priority becomes making sure her Dad is being health conscious and savvy about his well being. It portrays so well how children can experience anxiety in relation to change and the well being of a loved one.
She’s encouraged to go to summer Math camp and her Dad sends her on her way with an encouraging note saying he will miss her. Opening it on the bus, she mis-interprets and thinks it’s a cry for help and that he’s really asking her to stay home.
This is when I started to realise this is more than just a happy go lucky film about roller coasters. June is displaying adult fears and emotions that I feel we don’t often see portrayed in children’s films.
In almost every Disney film, a child loses their parent one way or another. They usually withdraw a little before skipping off singing songs with often mythical and magical wonder. With Wonder Park I felt like the message was more obvious and true to life.
Back to the film, June’s anxiety gets the better of her and she finds a way to get off the math camp bus and head through the woods for home. She envisages her Dad in a colourless world, basically self destructing. She doesn’t want to another parent to fall gravely ill.
Whilst wandering through the woods, she stumbles upon the real life Wonder Park. As June discovers, Wonder Park is under threat from “The darkness”. Portrayed as a pink swirling whirlpool that consumes everything that goes near it, never to return. We as adults can recognise this as June’s anxiety and depression that has developed in correlation to her Mum becoming seriously unwell. I wonder if children of a certain age can see this too.
Whilst trying to desperately rebuild the world as it crumbles around them, no thanks to the chimpanzombies feeding everything in sight to “the darkness”, the characters aren’t really tackling the reason behind the emergence of the darkness.
At the same time “the darkness” appeared, Greta and co tell June that the parks creator peanut disappeared. June finds Peanut in hiding. He’s busying himself organising the candy in a similar neurotic fashion to June’s coping mechanism of excessively cleaning.
It’s at this point it dawns on June that she is responsible for creating the darkness. Once June realises she needs to go inside the darkness to tackle it, then the film starts to get some resolve. She apologises to the rest of the Wonder Park gang for inadvertently causing such destruction in their world too.
I won’t spoil the ending but a pivotal moment in the film is towards the end. One of the Wonder Park creatives, Greta, points out to June that, despite them defeating the darkness and restoring Wonder Park to its former glory, the darkness can still be seen lurking in the sky. June takes a moment to reflect and says indeed it’s likely the darkness will always be there. The important thing is to see brightness surrounding it.
And just like that, Paramount Pictures together with Nickelodeon Movies tell kids the truth. Sometimes life sucks and we get depressed. Maybe we don’t ever fully recover from that depression but you take the light with the dark and just keep doing you.
In 2019, our kids have so many things that back in the day didn’t exist. We are finally recognising that children’s mental health matters. It exists and we need to take care of it. As we left the cinema, I bent down and thanked George for suggesting we see Wonder Park, and I acknowledged it was a great choice.
When I returned home and googled the film, I soon found very few positive reviews. And barely any that actually spoke of the important message I feel the film portrays. I really wanted to share this review and encourage you to watch it with your child.
Wonder Park is a PG rated film and this review was my own choice. I paid to attend the film myself and this is by no means an ad.
Watch the trailer.