The old adage reminds that it’s not the destination, but the journey that’s of consequence. That’s often true for characters in the stories we read and films we watch, but it’s also sometimes accurate for viewers as well. In The Wonderland, the latest film by director Keiichi Hara (Colorful, Miss Hokusai), featuring character designs from popular illustrator Ilya Kuvshinov, that’s exactly the case: Wander too long looking for the traditional practices that make a great anime film, and as the title implies, you’ll miss the beauty and wonder all around you.
Based on a children’s tale, Chikashitru Kara no Fushigi na Tabi (Strange Journey from the Basement), The Wonderland spends a mere five or ten minutes of its 115-minute run time on earth; the remainder takes place in what a resident calls a “mirror world” to our own, one in which railroads failed to make an impact (and perhaps in which the Industrial Revolution never took place), and where magical beings and settings are commonplace. Into the rabbit hole (or rather basement) dives typical teenage girl, Akane, who is coerced into the adventure by her flighty adult friend Chii. At the movie’s onset, Akane is visiting Chii after feinting illness and skipping school (possibly to avoid difficult conversations with friends); at the latter’s shop, the women are visited by an alchemist and his apprentice, who invite the teen into their world to become the “Goddess of the Green Wind” who will save it from an ever-encroaching drought. But it’s not just nature that presents an obstacle—so, too, does the robotic villain Zan Gu, a water-reviving ceremony requiring a missing prince, and Akane’s attitude, which is cautious and disagreeable at best.
If it all sounds like rather standard fare, it is. But the plot isn’t the point.
What The Wonderland does best is drown us in imagination, taking viewers into a whimsical backdrop that is quite glorious. While the titular world is compact in scale—several times we’re shown a map, and our main characters traverse most of the land and its small villages during the course of the film—each town is subtly and beautifully its own. One is full of small residences that look like Christmas ornaments on a tree while another is ravaged by wind storms that toss up clouds of red dirt. Though in general the animation is occasionally inconsistent, great care is taken in animating the city and landscapes. Pull-back scenes of the settings are panoramic and grand: They are breathtaking, among the most stunning pieces of animation I’ve seen.
The movie is being promoted with an eye on its Russian character designer, Kuvshinov. He is a rock star in the world of manga-style art, one of the most popular purveyors of the craft outside of Japan. I’ve long been a fan of his artwork, and was excited at seeing his designs animated. Punctuated by wide cheekbones, small (almost button) noses, and large, detailed eyes, the characters take center stage visually, and are a good match for the wonderfully developed, aforementioned land and cityscapes, a strong marriage between two styles that might otherwise overwhelm one another. The design for Zan Gu is an achievement as well: He comes across as a more practical General Grievous, and cultivates a similar desire in the audience to see what’s underneath the mask.
Critical viewers may find the animation, however, to be its own mask for weightier issues. Character development is at the center of the film, but the lead is never well-established. Subtlety in story is exchanged for info dumps. And it’s difficult to escape reminders that we are supposed to feel a certain way about these characters and the world, rather than enjoying them on their own merits. All these are rightful criticisms, as is the awkward voice acting by the Mayu Matsuoka, who has done some voice work but usually acts in live-action films. However, there’s a need here to adjust expectations. We are not watching Studio Ghibli or another work meant to transcend audiences both young and old: This is squarely a children’s film, one for pre-adolescents based on a similarly aged source material. It is a fairy tail, and just as Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella can be examined and enjoyed by adults (these are perhaps more closely comparable than the expected Alice in Wonderland), the intended audience has to be considered when evaluating the work. In more anime fare, I require more subtlety to explain plot changes; in The Wonderland, things move just because, and that’s to be expected.
Once I adjusted my approach—which was about at the point where the plot and story also picked up, moving toward its final destination—I could enjoy the wonder the movie was meant to convey. I could appreciate the direction, which sometimes created an intensity and urgency that made me worry for the characters, and the abounding fantasy which reminded me that I, too, had an imagination once. That’s the charm of The Wonderland: It is an involving and unassuming fairy tale that children will enjoy, and if you’re willing to become a kid again for a couple hours, so, too, will you.
Tickets are now available for screenings of The Wonderland in North American theaters.