INFESTATION: ANNECY ANIMATION FESTIVAL 2019: THE WONDERLAND
The Wonderland (also known as Birthday Wonderland) is director Keiichi Hara’s adaptation of Sachiko Kashiwaba’s fantasy novel Strange Journey From the Basement. Akane is a very insecure and shy girl. A day before her birthday she gets sent by her mother to her young aunt Chii’s antique store to pick herself out a gift. She touches a strange stone shaped like her handprint, which opens a mysterious door in the floor. Through this, a man named Hippocrates the Alchemist enters the room, assisted by his Lilliputian-sized assistant Pipo. He tells Akane that she is the Goddess of the Green Wind and is needed in his world to take part in a special celebration to save his land from certain doom. Together with her aunt Chii, Akane journeys into Wonderland. They come across some strange characters, look for a missing Prince, and face the evil monster Zan Gu and his magical minion Doropo who are plaguing the land in their tank-like machine robbing the inhabitants.
This may sound like The Wonderland is, in many ways, a very formulaic “kid in a magical land” story. The title doesn’t even try to hide where a lot of the inspiration came from, even if it seems more reminiscent of the anime series Bosco Adventure than Alice in Wonderland. A lot about this world felt like something we’ve seen before, gluing a lot of tropes from different children’s fantasy novels together. There’s a gigantic bird protecting her eggs and a Prince who has turned into a metal doll. There’s a desert land, snow land, underwater level… sorry, I mean the land where the girls get the power to breathe underwater and interact with gigantic fishes. I’m not saying I was expecting a new Never Never Land, Oz, or Narnia, but nothing about the setting really draws you in, initially. The inhabitants of the world sometimes run on nonsensical logic but are never quite as zany as the characters from Louis Carroll’s books. However, around the second half, the world finally felt like it started to get its own identity and got much more poetically fairy tale-ish and artistic with the designs.
That all being said it’s still beautiful looking. Keiichi Hara previously directed the gorgeously animated Miss Hokusai, which was much more of a slice of life story, but his impressive artistry is still on display here. Some locations, like a city in a funnel-shaped crater, spark the imagination and as it often is the case with anime, the characters take their time to fully experience it. Sometimes the girls will just lay down on sheep to relax and dip in the wool, or just watch the fields they are passing while in a car. A lot of the scenes involving nature and meadows felt more whimsical then did any of the magical elements; some of the most interesting fantasy concepts felt like side notes. For example, when our heroines enter the Wonderland and they go through a strange tunnel, Hippocrates shows them a spider “sowing time”, but he never gets so much as mentioned again. Another scene depicts a sleeping wizard whose floating house levitates up and down as he’s snoring, but briefly and never to be seen again. I can’t help wonder if these elements were more developed in the source novel as they felt like something they meant to play around with more.
Luckily, unlike some of the movies where they focus too much on the style and not enough on the main character (EG: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), here the heroines are quite likable. Akane fits a standard mold, but the real scene-stealer is Chii. She was easily one of the most refreshing elements here. Usually, in a story like this, it’s the kids who go on the fantastic adventure alone. Here Akane is joined by an adult and their personality and attitude perfectly counterbalanced all the whimsy. She’s a bit spoiled at times and reckless, is constantly throwing sarcastic remarks towards Mr. Hippocrates, questioning the fantasy logic, and even enjoys getting drunk. She’s the type of real-world person you want to see in a fantasy world making cynical comments on it. She felt more like Akane’s irresponsible older sister than an aunt, but the two girls had truly funny chemistry. Their bickering, as well as when they manage to work together, are some of the most entertaining parts of the film and their reactions are what made the movie for me. There is a part where Akane is captured by a group of talking cats who want to put her on trial for pulling the tail of her own cat. The scene gets a little disturbing, but at the same time is incredibly funny with Chii constantly trying to stop herself from laughing about the entire scenario. Unlike her scared niece, she can’t be bothered to take it seriously whatsoever.
Mr. Hippocrates, the alchemist is also a fun character. He’s serious and strict like a stereotypical British butler, which again not only nicely plays against Chii’s personality but provides some laughs on his own. The scene where he has to put on a pink fluffy sheep costume is hilarious, as well a part where he gets turned into a fly, for the first time losing his cool while unsuccessfully trying to communicate with the other characters. However, up till the last few scenes, there isn’t really a much of a point to making him an “alchemist”. He could very well have been renamed a wizard or a wise man and it would have made more sense. Pipo mostly was there to be cute but there was more dimension added to the character as the story went along.
The climax is far from traditional or what you normally would expect in a film like this. While there’s some action, it’s mostly emotional and psychological with some deep inner truths about the characters being revealed, unexpected twists and even a beautiful scene of noble sacrifice. The story at points gets metaphysical beyond simple wonderland silliness. While I appreciate that the villain also got some complexity, I do have to complain that outside of his cool design he didn’t feel that intimidating, at least when you look at the bigger picture. Essentially he’s just a masked guy in a black tank. It would be one thing if he was just harassing some defenseless villagers or small creatures, but here it’s clearly shown that the kingdom not only has armies, weapons and magicians, but cars exist as well. He seemed like a goon working for a primary villain rather than the main threat to the land himself. Perhaps making him some powerful overlord with armies of warrior-monsters would make him too much of a stereotypical fantasy bad guy, but it’s easy to question why nobody in the land is doing anything about him. Wouldn’t an angry mob take care of this largely ineffectual dude at some point?
As an adventure story for kids, The Wonderland is fine. There’s a great message, a lot of suspenseful scenes, the gorgeous looking world, and at points, it’s very very funny. At the same time, there isn’t much new to this “kid in a fantasy land” story and I can imagine a lot of adults getting easily bored by the first half. It never quite captures the beauty of nostalgic feelings for childhood the same way Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro did. But if you’re looking for something simple and cute to just calm and relax, it’s enjoyable enough for what it is.