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Wonderland, The
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by Jay Seaver

"I suspect every kid has their own wonderland by now."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Wonderland" (aka "Birthday Wonderland") has all the surface elements of big, respectable anime - a decent coming-of-age story, absolutely beautiful animation, certain specific character types, a traditional life/environmental message - and does each of them well enough that it plays really well from minute to minute. The trouble is that the whole doesn't fit together in a way that does those pieces justice. It's kind of about moving forward but also accepting destiny and how modern life isn't good for the soul but also shopping… It's all over the place.

It has a common sort of template. Akane (voice of Mayu Matsuoka) is a moody girl turning thirteen, sent by mother Midori (voice of Kumiko Aso) on an errand to the junk shop run by Akane's weird aunt Chii (voice of Anne Watanabe), which gets stranger than things usually do around Chii: A secret passage opens and the alchemist Hippocrites (voice of Masachika Ichimura) and his apprentice Pipo (voice of Nao Toyama) emerge, seeking the "Goddess of the Green Wind" and deciding it's Akane. Soon, they're all transported back to another land, magical and of an earlier era, where Zan Gou (voice of Keiji Fujiwara) and his bat-like sidekick Doropo (voice of Akiko Yajima) are collecting metal for a nefarious purpose, and if Akane doesn't stop them with her "Momentum Anchor" necklace, she'll never get home.

I can't speak for Sachiko Kashiwaba's original novel, but the movie is scattered as heck. That doesn't make it bad, although it can start to wear; it's got the sort of quest structure that has a viewer just starting to get a feel for something before it's on to the next thing, leaving characters and settings and the like behind. For all that growing up is in many ways the process of taking all of this and figuring it out to make it part of oneself, there's not much time spent on Akane resolving these complexities or coming up with her own perspective. The film is never quite just things happening to Akane, but she finds herself along for the ride more often than leading the charge.

It's hard to blame the filmmakers too much for jumping around, since they apparently have more ideas than they have room for, and just presenting each of them gives the audience plenty of chance to have their jaws drop. So much in this movie that must have looked great on the storyboard, too good to push aside or save for another project later. The design work and animation is top-notch, with gravity-defying chases that can make heads spin, bold colors, and an alternate world that, while a few innovations behind our Earth, doesn't feel frozen in time the way many magical realms do. Its history may still mostly be repeated cycles, but Akane isn't going to find stasis or refuge from change there.

It's got a fairly pleasant group of characters to hang around with; Akane isn't a complete grumpy tween, for instance, and Chii manages to be excited and curious without being too scatterbrained. Screenwriter Miho Maruo often finds to funny bits in a fantasy environment without knocking the supports out from under it, especially where the old trope of a hidden passage between worlds is concerend. That director Keiichi Hara takes a moment to show the audience that Akane's cat Goro-ban is a boy cat before he wakes her by rubbing his butt on her face may get snipped for its American release, but it's one of a few moments that are a little better than they could have been.

I'm sure it will cut a heck of a trailer, and it is fun to watch, so it's hardly a failure. It's just a bit of a disappointment coming as the follow-up to Hara's "Miss Hokusai", which used the medium of animation in ways that relatively few commercial filmmakers do. "The Wonderland" has plentiful moments of visual creativity, but it nevertheless often feels like a story even the kids in the audience have seen a few times before.

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originally posted: 01/19/20 06:06:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Keiichi Hara

Written by
  Miho Maruo

  Mayu Matsuoka
  Anne Watanabe
  Kumiko Aso
  Masachika Ichimura
  Nao Toyama

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