Wonder Park (Steven Price) – Score Review

The animated film Wonder Park looks set to arrive at the cinema with relatively little fanfare, sporting bright colors and a generally anonymous style.

The plot concerns a young girl who finds herself inside of an imaginary theme park, replete with talking animals and rides that would never pass safety inspections in the real world. Reviews have not been particularly kind to the film, but that has seldom kept scores for animated films from reaching lofty heights on their own. Taking his first trip into this genre is composer Steven Price, whose debut score for Gravity won him an Academy Award. Since that initial success, Price has continued to mine that same synthetically modified orchestral sound for films such as Fury and Suicide Squad, making many score fans wonder what kind of sound he would bring to this upbeat kids film.

Surprisingly, Price plays it pretty safe with his work for Wonder Park. The overall style is very much in line with the kind of generic animation scores that Remote Control composers have churned out over the past two decades. There is a strong orchestral presence with pop synth additions, and a focus on pleasing melodies and jaunty rhythms. The results are imminently listenable, if a bit expected.

Price anchors the score with an uplifting main theme, explored several times in the opening track “When the Ideas Come from You.” Lacking a bit in the memorability department, the idea gets the job down, effectively conveying awe-inspiring wonder of the amusement park’s attractions. A secondary theme for the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the film handles more of the emotional heavy lifting, hinted at during “When the Ideas Come From You” and explored more fully in “Without Wrecking the Neighborhood.” Again, memorability is not strong here, hurt even more by the theme’s subdued renderings.

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Most of the first half of the album consists of jaunty, lightweight animation music that occasionally touches on one of those ideas. The effect is an attitude so upbeat that the melancholy song-score hybrid track “Hideaway Medley” feels almost depressing. Once our protagonist makes it into the theme park, creatively titled Wonderland, Price introduces flashes of his trademark sound design to represent the dark elements at play, heard best in “You’re Embarrassing the Team.”

These motifs and their emotional weight are unfortunately too-often lost among the fairly dense mickey-mousing that defines the score’s personality. Despite its generous 62 minute runtime, Price’s music is so energetic that it never drags, although certainly can exhaust. Perhaps the composer was tasked with making up for the film’s inert narrative, in which case it was certainly successful, but such an approach on album is overwhelming. There are certainly highlights to be found throughout, and primarily consist of tracks that focus on giving airings to the themes rather than frantically responding to the on-screen insanity. “Wrecking the Neightborhood” and “Peanut’s Next Wondrous Invention” are two such tracks, including some of the best music the score has to offer.

More action-oriented tracks such as “We’re At War” and “The Darkness” are impressive in their composition, the quality of the writing much more intricate than what one would expect from this kind of score. The harpischord renditions of the main theme throughout the former track, hinting at the protagonists as Price’s oppressive sound design signals encroaching danger is a nice touch that demonstrate’s his desire to form a stronger narrative than was probably needed. Those kinds of flourishes may be small, but go a long way in distinguishing scores in a genre dominated by works written by committee. There is an overall consistency here that is admirable, with thematic throughlines that effectively tell the story through music alone. The robust orchestration also helps, improved by clear mixing that eschews the manipulated sound that has become increasingly prevalent.

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It is especially odd that thematic integrity and vibrant orchestration are the strongest points of Stephen Price’s work for Wonder Park. A composer known more for his soundscapes than actual melody, the end product here hints at untapped potential for the composer. One hopes that he will continue to broaden his discography and showing off his compositional range. Score fans may be interested in checking this one out solely to hear the composer’s development, but its rambunctious personality and tepid themes will likely make revisits uncommon. As much as it overachieves, it remains firmly planted in the mickey-mousing animation score mold. That genre’s appeal seems to have been shrinking, especially with other animation scores like How to Train Your Dragon demonstrating the heights that the genre can reach.

If you are looking for a nice substitute for caffeine, though, you could do worse than giving this a spin.

Wonder Park: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is now available from Sony Music Masterworks.

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