Wonder Park

Back at the start of the year, the Lambcast devoted an episode to making Box Office predictions for the year and we currently have a draft going. The truth is there is no point in voting for the draft because the winner is determined by the outcome of actual box office returns. Why you might ask, is this the subject at the start of a review of today’s animated film? It’s simple, “Wonder Park” was one of the films I chose for my draft. Here is my dilemma however, three of my films are opening within a week of each other, and two of them on the same day. “Captain Marvel” will earn me plenty of dollars in the Box Office derby, but my two films this week are likely to be a bust. “Marvel” is going to dominate again this weekend, and after seeing both of the other films I despair. Not because they are bad films, they are simply not going to draw a crowd. “Captive State” is too slow and intellectual to pull in many folks, and I think “Wonder Park” is so much more a kids film that only the little ones will bother to come out, and their parents may chose the Captain over the Park.

This animated film from Paramount is a serviceable film for a young audience. It has some inventive visuals and a little bit of character flair going for it, but that is all. The humor is mostly coy and not the kind of slap stick that kids will flock to. There is also nothing in the humor that speaks to adults, the parents who are going to be bringing their kids. This movie turns out to be so conventional that it will hardly be remembered after being seen.

At the heart of the story is a theme of imagination being encouraged. As much as the Comic Book movie dominating the theaters now is about female empowerment, so is this. June, the little girl who is the main character, has an imagination as big as all outdoors. Along with encouragement from her mother, she has visualized an elaborate them park with rides that seem exactly the kind of thing that kids would want to do. Forget the impractical, let’s just have some fun, and no one should fault them for that. June has integrated her toys into the park as well, making her stuffed animals pivotal elements of the park. She of course suffers from the same disease that all kids do at some point in these kinds of movies, a lack of faith in what she is doing.

The key turn in June’s enthusiasm comes in the form of an unnamed illness that threatens to take her mother away from her. As is usual in these movies, Dad is supportive but ineffectual. His attempts at reassurance and encouragement are met with a severe case of seriousness and anxiety by the child.  Somehow, the whole situation gets confronted by the discovery of the real park version of her imagined plans. The creeping decay of the park is much like the story in “The Never Ending Story” As a child despairs, the fantasy world they have created is threatened. You can almost certainly predict where things are going to go from there.

I did like the neighbor kid who is June’s friend Banky. You don’t see a lot of Indian-American characters in films aimed at kids and this is a rewarding change of pace. Also, there is not a local bully, hovering over the proceedings, all the emotion turmoil is self inflicted. The story of a child creating something real out of her imagination is the kind of thing we should encourage. I was reminded of “Caine’s Arcade” and the inventiveness of children when June and Banky launch their homemade roller coaster.  But other than the underdeveloped Chimpanzombies, there is not much to hold a kids attention. There is also a big sadness hanging over the movie.  Parents taking their kids to see this, may have to reassure them on their own health.

The movie is simply not inspiring or funny enough to succeed. It is not a bad film but rather a mediocre one that I unfortunately put my hopes in. I really wish I’d been able to draft “The Secret Life of Pets 2”.

Captive State

With a smattering of special effects and some old school style storytelling, “Captive State” manages to be a smart, compelling Science Fiction allegory that will make you remember the films of the 1970s without being old-fashioned. This film is more cerebral than is healthy for the box office, but if you are willing to think and fill in the story elements, you will come away impressed by the things that were accomplished here with solid acting, a cryptic script and an idea that has been around for a long time.

“captive State” barely touches on the manner in which our planet became an occupied state. That process is over by the time the credits have finished. This movie takes place well into the occupation and it uses some long standing ideas as the crux of the story. Aliens have come for our resources, but they need our cooperation to get them. Their solution has been to take over the political processes of the Earth and replace them with their own form of governing. They manage to convince the power elite that they will survive and everyone else is given pablum about how great everything is now that we are subjected to this domination. Although this is an alien invasion film, it is not really about the aliens. They appear in relatively few scenes and are largely a menacing off screen presence. It is the Vichy style police state that is the true enemy of humanity, and it is uncertain if an insurgency can be reignited after having been crushed once before.

There is an overwhelming sense of sadness about how compliant we humans have become. The folks who make up the deep “terror” cell of resistance, come from some of the obvious places but there are also a few surprises. Much of the story involves how they have to circumvent the surveillance that the whole population is subjected to. The police have become a tool for control and they have power that can only be described as dictatorial. John Goodman plays the head of the security police in a troublesome district. His methods are successful but he seems to be holding back on some potential problems as a way of protecting former family friends and securing a complete victory over the Chicago resistance cell at the same time. He has always been one of the best things in any movie he appears in and this is no exception. Although his name is the first lead on the promotional material, his story is secondary at times to that of Ashton Sanders as Gabriel Drummond, the younger brother of a famous resistance leader.

I mentioned that this was old fashioned story telling, well here is why I say that,,, very little is explained to us. We have to figure out what is going on as the story develops. Sometimes there are dead ends, and in other places there are moments that feel as if they are going to be important, but they are a red herring. Characters interact with one another and we don’t know their motivations or relationships, we only see their actions. That means we need to pay attention to those actions and my guess is a lot of people will not like that. There were a ton of crime films and science fiction films in the early 70s that did the same sort of thing. Nothing is spelled out in bold letters explaining what is happening or why it matters. Because the film is set in the decaying parts of Chicago after the invasion, it feel gritty like one of those movies as well. There are some action beats but most of the movie is suspense based with some mysteries deeply buried for us to wait to unravel.

This is a stand alone film that could easily be turned into a franchise but I doubt it will have the financial cache to get to that. Vera Farmiga, Kevin Dunn and Alan Ruck are seasoned veterans of movies who are small background players in this story. Kevin J. O’Conner,is another who is working in the background to make the scenario seem real. The movie though belongs to Sanders and Goodman and they have the ability to play it honestly. I thought the wrap up was sad as hell but also inspiring. I won’t say it is a total surprise but the way it plays out was not exactly what I chad come to expect. This is not really a popcorn movie despite the Sci Fi trappings. If you are interested in seeing how grown ups tell a story about the alien scenario, then this is the movie for you.