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It is nice that in the Japanese animation scene, more directors and creators are becoming more popular. Japan has some of the most talented individuals working in the animation scene, and it is satisfying that Makoto Shinkai, Masaaki Yuasa, Mari Okada, and Mamoru Hosoda are now world-renowned, but I feel like one director deserves some more recognition than he gets, Keiichi Hara. While starting by working on some iconic shows like Doraemon and Crayon Shin-chan, he has also had a small, but fruitful directorial film career working on films from those franchises, and his own films like Summer Days with Coo, Colorful, and one of my faves from 2016, Miss Hokusai. However, we are talking about his newest film that got a small release thanks to Elevenarts, The Wonderland.
Originally titled Birthday Wonderland, and based on the 1988 story Strange Journey from the Basement, Hara’s newest film premiered last year in April, and was able to compete in the 2019 Annecy International Film Festival, but like many of the films there at the festival, lost to the festival smash hit, I Lost My Body. It even missed out on being shown at Animation is Film 2019, and hasn’t had the most fanfare. It doesn’t help either that while it got pretty positive reviews, they still came with hefty criticism. So, what do I think about this adventurous film? Well, you have to read the review.
The story revolves around a teenage girl named Akane, a pretty average teenage girl with not a whole lot of self-confidence. One day, her mother requests she go visit her aunt named Chi to pick up a special gift. While there, she peruses the items that Chi has acquired. One of the items that stands out is this piece of stone with a handprint in it. Akane then decides to put her hand in the print and it ends up with the hand fitting in the, well, stone. Then, out of the store’s basement, a dapper individual walks out. He turns out to be a famed alchemist known as Hippocrates. He explains that he is from another world, and since Akane’s hand fits the print, she is the Green Goddess, and must come back with Hippocrates and his assistant Pipo back to The Wonderland. Reluctantly, Akane and her aunt go with Hippocrates to save their land and to avoid the evil plans of a masked individual. Can Akane save the day? Can she find the courage to make it through a magical world?
There is a lot we can start with, but let’s talk about the standout element to the film, the visuals, and animation. This is a very pretty film with lush vibrant colors, beautiful landscapes, and fantastical locations. While there is CGI used in this film, you can tell it’s better integrated into the 2D animation than Ni No Kuni. I was in awe most of the time looking at all of the creative landscapes and designs. It’s hard to be grumpy at a film with large puffball sheep and being able to ride giant koi fish. The designs also stand out from the rest of the pack. Sure, the designs of the humans may not look unique, but it’s the person behind them that makes all of the difference. The designs are by Russian Illustrator Ilya Kushinov. She brings in a very unique look to the film, and it stands out among the different anime films coming out. In terms of themes, the film is another coming-of-age film about dealing with self-doubt and becoming a better person through trust and helping others. Akane starts out as a nervous wreck, who is reluctant to better herself, but throughout the film, she becomes a more self-reliant individual who has faith in herself. Even the villain this time around is more interesting, due to his circumstances brought upon him. The voice work is pretty solid, but I have only seen the subtitle version for right now, but since this is Elevenarts, I’m sure the dub will be good. The music is also stellar, especially with the film’s theme song by Milet, which has been stuck in my head for weeks.
Now, I do have a few negatives to talk about. While I love the majority of the cast, Akane isn’t the most interesting female lead. She isn’t terrible, but she’s fairly boilerplate. I also wasn’t fully on board with some of the mannerisms of Chi. She’s great, but there are a few moments that made me roll my eyes. I think my favorite characters were Hippocrates and the villain. I also found the pacing to be wonky. A lot of the film has the characters driving around, and I don’t mind that aspect, but once it hits the third act, the pacing becomes very stop-and-go. It’s almost jarring how oddly paced the last third is. I also wish there could have been more time expanding on this world than it being taken up by driving, because I loved the fantasy world.
While I still prefer Miss Hokusai, I liked Keiichi Hara’s newest film. It has a lot of personality, charm, and fantasy whimsy to recommend to anyone looking for a fun adventure. Sadly, with its limited release, you will have to wait for it to arrive on Blu-ray, but if you don’t mind the wait, then you will probably enjoy this flick! Well, it’s time to move onto our next film, but sadly, we have to wait for it to arrive on Netflix. Next time, we will be talking about one of three animated films based on video games this year. We already talked about Ni No Kuni, so we will be moving down to Dragon Quest: Your Story.
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Rating: Go see it!