Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Fantasia ’19: The Wonderland

Akane and her friends pass through a basement portal to enter this fantastical realm, but it is definitely cut from the same cloth as other classic YA fantasies featuring looking-glasses and wardrobes. Maybe it feels a little familiar, but everything looks amazing in Keiichi Hara’s anime feature, The Wonderland (a.k.a. Birthday Wonderland), which had its North American premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Akane is a junior high student who has not been acting particularly social or ambitious lately. To perk her up, her mother sends Akane to pick up her own birthday present from Chii, an eccentric friend of the family, who runs a mysterious curio shop. However, even Chii did not know there was portal to another fantasy world in her basement, until Hippocrates the alchemist pops out of it.

Convinced Akane is the reincarnation of The Goddess of the Green Wind, Hippocrates drags her to his world, so she can perform the ritual of renewal the absent prince appears determined to blow off. Without the ceremony, the lands will dry out and the color will be drained from the world. That might be okay with Zan Gu, the steampunky Dr. Doom-esque villain, who has been plundering metal from the countryside to smelt down for his nefarious plans. Of course, Chii tags along, because she is adventurous and always on the look-out for unique new merch for her store.

Hara’s previous film was the outstanding Miss Hokusai, but while Wonderland matches the visual lushness of that film, it does not connect as deeply on an emotional level. Hara and screenwriter Miho Maruo adapted Sachiko Kashiwaba’s beloved children’s novel, but the story itself proceeds like a mix-and-match of tried-and-true fantasy elements.

Still, Wonderland is worth seeing—and we do mean seeing—because of Hara’s grand spectacles and his neat little details. The sheep who look like gigantic cotton balls are sure to be favorites of younger viewers (ours too). The distinctive character designs created by Russian expat artist Ilya Kuvshinov definitely differentiate Wonderland from other anime, but their personalities are not as strongly delineated.

Wonderland has been tagged by critics as a Ghibli want-to-be, like that is a criticism. Frankly, it brings to mind the story of Phil Woods responding to a critic by shoving his alto at him and hissing, if it is so easy to imitate Charlie Parker than let’s hear him do it. There are definitely Ghibli-esque pastoral vistas and a similar sense of wonder. It is all quite enjoyable, but nobody will be dying to meet these characters again. Recommended for anime fans, Wonderland had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia.