ANNECY, France — Paramount Animation’s presentation of “Wonder Park” at the Annecy Festival packed a large interest. It was the first Annecy for DreamWorks Animation veteran Mireille Soria since she was appointed president of Paramount Animation by Jim Gianapaolos in July 2017. People were keen to know what she’d say about where she wanted to take the division.
Also, after several years absent from most international events, Spain animation made an impressive splash at March’s Cartoon Movie in Bordeaux. The big film missing there was Paramont Animation’s “Wonder Park,” whose animation vendor and co-producer – along with Nickelodeon Movies – was Madrid’s Ilion Animation Studios. Clips of “Wonder Park” and a song featured at cinema.con. But Annecy’s sneak peek promised a far deeper drill down.
Production on “Wonder Park” was initiated in September 2014, nearly three years before Mireille Soria took over at Paramount Animation. As it turned out, however, the first question – its corporate direction – and the second – “Wonder Park” itself – proved to be intimately connected.
Paramount has a celebrated history in animation, Soria said appearing on stage to a burst of applause at Annecy, and citing, among many other shows, “Betty Boop” and “Popeye.” “Now we are focused on carrying on and advancing our legacy in a big way,” she added. Paramount Animation’s goal is to make “at least” two animated tentpole movies a year. She has already greenlit three, announced late April at cinema.com: a new Spongebob movie, “It’s a Wonderful Sponge,” from writer-director Tim Hill (“Muppets from Space”), a “Spongebob Squarepants” exec; “Monster on the Hill,” directed by Bradley Raymond (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame II”); and “Luck,” directed by Alessandro Carloni. “It’s a Wonderful Sponge” and “Monster on the Hill” are scheduled for release in 2020, “Luck” in 2021.
Greenlighting three movies since July “shows how ambitious we are,” Soria said. They also re-unite her with some tried-and-tested DreamWorks Animation talent, such as Ramsey Naito, present at the Annecy sneak-peek, who produced DreamWorks Animation’s Oscar-nominated “The Boss Baby,” and joined Paramount Animation as executive VP in April.
Even if initiate way before Soria joined Paramount Animation, in at least two ways, however, “Wonder Park” looked to encapsulate her philosophy. “Together our team is working to identity, acquire and develop properties that will become must-see events with global appeal,” Soria said on stage. Aiming for “a diverse slate” and “a variety of genres: Comedy, musicals, adventure at varying budget levels,” Paramount Animation’s current game-plan is “to have front end on our lot in Hollywood and partner with vendors globally to make the movies,” she added. Here, “Wonder Park,” whose animation was produced by Ilion in Madrid, is a case in point.
“We won’t have a house style: Each film will have a unique look and direction dictated by the filmmakers,” Soria explained. One large question is whether working with different outhouse vendors in and outside the U.S. can actually enhance movies’ distinctiveness. Made by Ilion Animation Studios director Javier Abad, VFX supervisor Javier Romero and Juan Garcia González, its head of layout, the main part of the “Wonder Park’s” Annecy presentation certainly sought to pinpoint the originality and experimentation in the animated feature, which was received enthusiastically by the Annecy audience.
Directed by Dylan Brown from a screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, “Wonder Park’s” voice cast stars Sofia Mali and Brianna Denski as June, Jennifer Garner as Mom, Ken Hudson Campbell as Boomer, a narcoleptic blue bear.
The first two sequences shown at Annecy maybe captured this drive for originality best. A tribute to creativity, “Wonder Park” turns on 10-year-old June, a wildly imaginative young girl who builds models of amusements parks with her mother. Then her mother falls sick and has to go away for treatment. June packs away her models, loses her sense of wonder.
But one day in the woods, in a magical moment, she discovers a roller coaster car buried under ivy. It takes her to a fantasy wonder park, like the ones she used to build, peopled by animals who were its past employees. But the park is broken down, abandoned. With the park’s animals, June sets out to fix it and rediscover her sense of confidence and imagination, overcoming her fears.
““The biggest challenge in ‘Wonder Park’ was to achieve a stylized look to a movie that could be considered more realistic. We tried to use conventions of real cinematography but in a stylized world,” Romero said.
A first sequence records June’s discovery of the rollercoaster car, when she chases a blue piece of paper into a forest. With notable energy and a variety of shot set-ups far more usual in live-action cinema, the camera energetically tracks June as she runs after the fluttering paper down a forest path, cuts to an aerial shot, a close-up detail, seemingly dollies in and out on June.
Another key creative choice was the film’s sense package, said García González. Confessing they were big fans of Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (“Gravity,” “The Revenant”), Ilion’s filmmakers chose extreme wide lenses to create the “sensation of a majestic environment and immersion, that audiences feel like they are in this world with our protagonist,” García González commented. The magical forest sequence was shot with 14mm lenses, for instance.
Another defining decision was “Wonder Park’s” color palette. The magical forest scene was shot in gorgeously warm fall forest colors – deep browns, green ivy, a blue sky. The second sequence shown, a montage, proved very different, recording June and Mom building a miniature amusement park in the living room, via short vignettes: June and Mum playing with some flower decorations; June creating rides as her Mum looks on admiringly – and lovingly; June demonstrating one amusement with young friends.
“Instead of a conventional drama sequence, Ilion experimented with a near-documentary style. “It’s very raw footage of normal people in normal situations,” said García Gonzalez.
“We are showing the loving relationship between a mother and a daughter, which is really cool for an animator. Given it’s a montage sequence, we could be very selective building the animation and creating that emotion,” Abad added.
But as the sequence progresses, June’s Mum retreats into the background., seen on the phone, gesticulating, talking, one deduces, to medical specialists. The montage progressively drains of color. Its last shot is June running after a car taking her Mom away, against a wane grey sky.
Further sequences illustrated character design, via the figure of the giant but often hapless Boomer; and a dramatic action sequence as June surfs down a fireworks waterfall rollercoaster, thought amazing by Annecy spectators.
But the big impression left by “Wonder Park” has already been made. “Planet 51,” Ilion’s first feature, was animated much more by the rulebook. It was an achievement just to get it made. “Wonder Park’s” documentary-style collage was built up semi-intuitively, said Romero. Now far more experienced, judging from what was seen at Annecy, the Ilion filmmakers are doing just what Soria wants: Unleashing their imaginations.