Keiichi Hara’s candy-colored fairy tale is certainly a feast for the eyes, even if its story is skin deep.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.)
Ever since Hayao Miyazaki retired in 2014, and Studio Ghibli started winding down their operations (apparently, they’re both coming back next year for the upcoming How Do You Live?), there’s been a whole bumper-crop of Ghibli-esque fantasy films trying to fill that power vacuum. In a lot of respects, The Wonderland (whose alternate title is Birthday Wonderland) checks off a lot of those boxes: lush, imaginative landscapes populated by cutesy fantasy characters and a distinctly European fairy-tale design, with a bubbly tone of sweetness underpinning it all. It’s not nearly as texturally rich as the works of Miyazaki — it’s downright shallow when you get down to it. But as a showcase for some incredible visuals, it’s a pretty impressive feat.
Based on the 1988 Sachiko Kashiwaba kid’s book Strange Journey From the Basement, The Wonderland follows Akane, an aimless teen girl who longs to fade into the background and live a life of ease. But when she’s tasked with picking up her own birthday present from her flighty Aunt Chii, the kind of fun relative who has all manner of quirky pursuits (she runs a little tchotchke shop and gives violin lessons) but isn’t the best parental figure.
When Akane accidentally puts her hand on one of the trinkets in her shop — a cement handprint that mysteriously matches hers — she and Chii are suddenly thrust into a magical underworld just beneath the shop, ushered there by a dashing, mustachioed alchemist named Mr. Hippocrates and his fairy-sized assistant, Pipo. From there, it’s all the standard hero’s journey stuff: Hippocrates has retrieved her to be the long-prophesied Goddess of the Green Wind, destined to restore water to the drought-ridden kingdom after the prince disappeared before he could perform the ceremony. Along the way, Akane finds her inner strength, contends with evil steampunk villain Zan Gu (who looks like a cross between General Grievous and the Phantom of the Paradise) and makes peace with her grumpy cat Goro-beh, who can now talk.
What’s more, the cast of colorful characters around Akane threaten to swallow her journey whole; she’s the kind of character who literally needs a magical totem called a “Momentum Anchor” to drive her forward in the story. Yes, sure, the lesson is that she didn’t need it the whole time, but she really only makes one or two really big choices for herself. The rest of the time, she’s along for the ride with Hippocrates and Pipo, with the devil-may-care Chii really acting as the film’s momentum anchor.
It’s not nearly as texturally rich as the works of Miyazaki — it’s downright shallow when you get down to it. But as a showcase for some incredible visuals, it’s a pretty impressive feat.
When the movie looks this good, though, it’s easy to wallpaper over a lot of these plot criticisms. As a piece of anime, The Wonderland looks gorgeous; its characters and visuals are designed by Ilya Kuvshinov, an Insta-famous Russian (albeit Tokyo-based) artist known for combining traditional anime designs with modern cinematographic techniques. The world she crafts is bright, bold and lush, with pops of color and originality punctuating the bright green fields and Easter-egg-blue skies of this magical fantasy land. Her character designs are elegant yet simple, between the grounded shirt-and-jean-shorts combo of Akane to the puffy pink onesies the crew adorably wears during a colder leg to their journey. When it comes to replicating the magical realism of Miyazaki, Kuvshinov absolutely nails it.
Director Keiichi Hara makes restrained use of these designs, emphasizing the sugary cuteness of it all while letting some of The Wonderland‘s more serious moments land. It’s a movie about its world more than its story, and Hara is content to relax into world-building moments like a stampede of giant sheep with Pikachu faces, or an entire subplot in which the fate of the world rests on a sweater contest.
As frustratingly passive as Akane can be, her dynamic with the assertive Chii is still pretty adorable, as is an entire act in which Mr. Hippocrates (their guide up to this point) is turned into a fly, forcing them to fend for themselves. Plus, Harumi Fuuki‘s bombastic, assertive musical score is a lovely listen, the sonic landscape effortlessly shifting from Joe Hishashian strings to Yoko Kanno-like blends of rock guitar.
Unlike most fantasy, The Wonderland is not an action film — conflicts are settled by discussion and acts of courage instead of swordfights — and having two young women (Chii is still probably in her thirties) be the lead is inherently more fascinating than the more traditional route these stories take. It may be a tale as old as time, but it’s hard to stay mad at a picture this visually eye-popping and tonally charming.