“The Wonderland,” the new film from director Keiichi Hara (“Miss Hokusai”), certainly has the building blocks of something wondrous: a skilled director, top production values, and a story by beloved children’s author Sachiko Kashiwaba.
One of Kashiwaba’s admirers is Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki, whose Academy Award-winning “Spirited Away” is said to have been at least loosely inspired by a Kashiwaba book. And yes, if you’ve been paying attention to the post-Ghibli anime industry, your “another anime film trying to recreate the charms of Miyazaki?!” alarm bell probably just went off.
On its face, “The Wonderland” is charming enough. As the film opens, junior high-schooler Akane (Mayu Matsuoka), playing sick to avoid a conflict with her friends at school, visits a shop run by her mother’s free-spirited friend Chi (the single-named Anne). The shop houses a portal to another world, the pair discover when a magician appears asking Akane to help save said world from destruction. So much for avoiding conflict.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||115 mins.|
With Chi, who insists on tagging along, Akane accompanies the magician, Hippocrates (Masachika Ichimura), and his pint-sized pal Pipo (Nao Toyama) as they journey through the wonderland, face off against creepy-looking baddies, and meet kind sweater-knitting grandmas. The problem, as we learn, is a long drought that’s draining the color and energy from this magical world — and, as it turns out, a young girl who looked suspiciously like Akane helped put an end to a similar drought hundreds of years prior.
Between “Miss Hokusai,” which brought to life the pulsing, sensual Edo of the 1800s, and this film, Hara has proven himself a master of world-building. Akane’s trip brings her and her friends to many wondrous environments — deserts, snowscapes, grand castle towns, all of which are depicted in luscious detail. They’re also populated with a delightful cast of minor characters, from border-patrolling cats, to sheep so fluffy you can nap on their backs, to the aforementioned knitting grandmas. And it’s all brought together with top-notch animation and background art — though visually, the biggest standout may be the angular character designs by Russian artist Ilya Kuvshinov, which manage to look both familiar and totally unique at the same time.
But while Akane and her friends cover a lot of physical distance on their journey, “The Wonderland” is missing the emotional beats to make it really count. The film follows a familiar pattern — a young man or woman goes on a journey in a strange land, learns important life lessons and returns a better person. It’s a tale as old as they come, and done well, it resonates emotionally (see again, “Spirited Away”). But by allowing the older Chi to come along and serve as babysitter, the film doesn’t give Akane much room to figure things out for herself and grow in the process. Meanwhile, Chi and Hippocrates get involved in a feud that’s played for laughs but mostly falls flat.
“The Wonderland” is not the first, and will almost definitely not be the last, to try to push the Miyazaki buttons — and while it succeeds on the surface, it lacks the deeper emotional core to make for something truly wondrous.