Movie Review: The Wonderland

Nothing changes a person lacking in self-confidence more than being tasked with saving a parallel fantasy world, luckily, nothing incredibly dangerous happens to The Wonderland (Birthday Wonderland)’s protagonist, Akane.

Skipping school to avoid drama on the day before her birthday, Akane is sent by her mother to pick up her birthday present at her aunt Chii’s store. She soon discovers that she is the Goddess of the Green Wind and is whisked away by an alchemist and his assistant, along with Chii, to save the prince who can restore water and bring back rain to Wonderland. 

What drew me to watching this film was Ilya Kuvshinov’s artwork. I have been following  and have been a fan after seeing his illustrations on Instagram since (roughly) 2016. Tasked with designing the characters in the film, Kuvshinov illustrates the majority of the young female designs with delicate soft rounded faces (resembling doll faces with button noses and small chins) in the same proportions, but these characters are still distinguishable with their different haircuts and hair colours. 

Kuvshinov’s male character designs, on the other hand, vary and the most interesting design is that of the film’s villain, Zan Gu. With his height, skeletal face hidden underneath a white animal skull, burning red eyes  and the long black cloak with bright red lining draping over his mechanical frame, the antagonist exudes a powerful and intimidating presence. Zan Gu does seem a bit out of place compared to the rest of the characters in the film because he has a futuristic, science fiction feel to his design, but it’s what makes him so interesting.

Wonderland is a parallel universe to the real world in which technology did not continue to drastically evolve after the discovery of the steam engine. Magic and alchemy reign supreme in Wonderland and there are many different races which make up the residents of this fantastical world, including small fairy-like people, human-sized cat people and gigantic sheep. 

The settings in The Wonderland are diverse, colourful and unique in personality. 

For example, Cockscomb village is a quaint, quiet place in the countryside with its surrounding lush green hills and flower fields. Its colour palette reflects its tranquil atmosphere with pastel blues, lavender, greens, yellows and oranges. On the other hand, Nibi Town is an industrial town with a dark, grimy atmosphere with its colour palette mixing dirty browns and oranges. Its air is heavily polluted from burning coal and steel and its sidewalks are littered with garbage and drunkards.

Animation studio Signal M.D. worked on the film using both 2D and 3D animation. Despite how animation studios are using these two styles in tandem for recent anime series and movies, it’s difficult to fully integrate them together on screen without one element looking like it was horribly copy and pasted onto a scene. Comparing this film to Napping Princess, I think Signal M.D. improved on lighting scenes and using digital effects to blend 2D and 3D animation, so there is less of a stark contrast between moving and stationary elements.

The most memorable setting (visually) was the desert at night and I think these two screenshots speak for themselves.

The storytelling aspect of this film didn’t necessarily fall flat for me, but I found it difficult to stay engaged despite having watched The Wonderland twice in order to write this review.

(And yes, this is the part of the review where I list all the gripes I had watching The Wonderland.)

  • I was looking forward to a whimsical fantasy adventure with stakes and consequences and the story didn’t exactly deliver that. I did receive a family film with a nice pace where I followed Akane’s journey from Point A to Point B. However, there weren’t any huge problems for Akane to face during her journey, just a lot of solvable mishaps. 
  • The story never gives Akane a moment to shine on her own until the movie’s climax (making me remember that she is indeed the protagonist) and does not give the audience time to emotionally bond with her either. The plot moves according to the adult characters’ actions and decisions rather than Akane’s choices since Akane (who I assume is a pre-teen) depends on adults to do the things. With that being said, she does go through subtle character development done in the good ol’ “show and don’t tell” storytelling method in the lake scene and the “saving the prince with the power of understanding and compassion” scene.    
  • The effects of Wonderland’s drought seemed pretty minimal because its people were able to go on with their lives happily and the environments didn’t reflect the issue’s importance.
  • Once the wizard Kamadoma indirectly confirmed how the cursed prince wasn’t in his bedroom, the film’s twist lost any shock factor it had. The prince’s reason for becoming the villain and wanting to destroy the well used in the rain ceremony was out of fear of failure and by extension, fear of death. According to Wonderland’s lore about the royal family, its kings were responsible for performing the rain ceremony and should they fail (which was not too uncommon), they would sacrifice their lives for Wonderland through death. Even though my idea would make the film adaptation less accurate to the book it was based off of, I think the story could have been more dramatic if the details of the kingdom’s lore was hidden from the public, the audience and Akane until the very last second.
  • One scene I felt was unnecessary was Akane making a Momentum Anchor necklace for the prince. I thought Dr. Hippocrates was going to remove Akane’s because she learned how to be brave and confident in her choices and hand it to Akane to give it to the prince. Although I suppose it was cute that she made a necklace for him instead to establish how young people just need a little extra spark of alchemy/magic to help do difficult tasks.

Along with my enjoyment of the beautiful backgrounds in The Wonderland, the film had other strong points, including:

  • Lighting was used to symbolize the dynamic between Akane and her mother. A few minutes into the film’s opening, there’s a visual separation between mother and daughter with Akane sitting at the table in the shade and her mother swinging under sunlight. Sunlight would represent someone who is more open in the relationship while shade would be the opposite.  
  • Their relationship isn’t strained, but Akane doesn’t trust in her mother enough to tell her the truth about why she chose to skip school nor does she vocalize any appreciation toward her mother either. In response, her mother doesn’t nag or scold her and instead makes her daughter breakfast. 
  • In the movie’s final scene, Akane thinks about how much she appreciates the world and its beauty. When she returns home, Akane chooses to sit beside her mother and cuddles into her side. They’re both bathed in sunlight in the comfort of their home.
  • Despite how The Wonderland does lengthen and focus on unrelated scenes to the major plot, I appreciate how its story resolves loose strings. At the beginning of the film, the audience learns how Akane wanted to avoid drama between her friends in a memory. Akane doesn’t have the courage to stand up for her friend outed for not agreeing to wear a hair clip in their circle. Akane does help reintegrate this friend back at school by giving all her friends a gift from her trip from Wonderland. 
  • Aunt Chii was the real MVP and someone who thirsts for adventure and loves discovering cool knick knacks to sell in her store. She speaks bluntly, is naturally curious and goes with the flow. Not only does she carry the entire movie on her back with her actions, Chii pushes Akane out of her comfort zone by discussing romance to distract them from the fact that they may fall to their demise while crossing a rickety old bridge and jumping into the giant lake to ride on the backs of koi and goldfish three times their size.
  • Pipo and Lon are super adorable characters and Lon’s backstory was more interesting than the actual movie. Lon desired to become the strongest wizard in Wonderland and felt jealous of Pipo’s successes in school. He had trouble in executing his magic spells properly and as a young “fairy-like” person, hated how he disappointed others. Lon’s character was the best written in the entire cast.

The Wonderland was not a perfect movie and was not successful in keeping me entertained for the entire ride, but it does a solid job of being a family movie with beautiful backgrounds and cute characters.

The Wonderland (or Birthday Wonderland) is a fantasy isekai drama directed by Keiichi Hara, animated by Studio Signal M.D and originally released in 2019. The character designs were created by one of my favourite digital artists, Ilya Kuvshinov and was the main reason why I wanted to check out the film. It is based on the 1988 children’s book written by Sachiko Kashiwaba called, Strange Journey from the Basement (or Chikashitsu kara no fushigi na tabi). The film can be streamed on Tubi for free.

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