Akane (Mayu Matsuoka) is a middle schooler who is having typical middle school troubles—mainly figuring out where she fits in the world, which including sorting out relationships with classmates who aren’t always very nice—and she takes a middle schooler’s solution of playing sick so she can stay home for a day. Her mother, understanding what’s going on, sends Akane on an errand to a new-agey shop run by Chii (Anne Watanabe), a free spirit and source of sisterly wisdom.
Chii’s shop turns out to contain more than crystals and Oriental rugs: when Akane, bored and fooling around, places her hand in a cast of a handprint, she opens a portal to another world. A top-hatted alchemist named Mr. Hippocrates (Misachika Ichimura) emerges from Chii’s cellar, accompanied by a tiny and very adorable assistant named Pipo (Nao Toyama). They’re on a mission: it seems that Wonderland is in grave danger, and Akane is the one and only person who can save it. So, just like that, Akane is off on a hero’s journey in a land full of gigantic pelicans, monstrous machines, talking cats, wise old women, and the like.
The Wonderland (also known as Birthday Wonderland, as Akane’s journey beings the day before her birthday) arrives at Fantasia 2019, where it is receiving its North American premiere, with a heavy load of expectations. Director Keiichi Hara rightly received accolades for his previous film, Miss Hokusai, and The Wonderland is based on a well-known Japanese children’s book, Strange Journey from the Basementby Sachiko Kashiwaba. Many of the story elements, as well as the animation style, recall Hayao Miyazaki’s films, particularly Kiki’s Delivery Service. Unfortunately, while The Wonderland is a perfectly enjoyable children’s film, it too often chooses the safe road rather than taking the kind of risks that can result in cinematic magic (but can also flop). While I’d like to get behind any story that sends a girl on a hero’s journey, The Wonderland has none of the magic of Miyazaki’s best films. Instead, it presents a fairly ordinary story, albeit one presented with above-average visuals, that ticks all the boxes of a standard coming-of-age story but doesn’t try to do much more.
The best thing about The Wonderland is the inventive visual world created by the animation team, led by concept artist and character designer Ilya Kuvshinov. All the voice actors are good and the music by Harumi Fuuki is effective, so the real problem is with the screenplay, which saddles Akane with four partners on her journey and then never puts her in any real risk. Even children’s films need dramatic tension and wrapping your protagonist in the narrative equivalent of cotton wool makes for a dull film, no matter what age group is the intended market. I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t say whether the milquetoast feel of the story is due to the source material or to choices made by screenwriter Miho Maruo, but it’s the main flaw in an otherwise quite enjoyable movie. | Sarah Boslaugh