My first impressions of The Wonderland was that it’s incredibly beautiful. There’s so much color and detail to be found in every corner of the screen. Interestingly enough a lot of the background detail seems to disappear after the first 20 minutes. At first I took this as a sign of budgeting issues or severe oversight and was kind of put off by the disappearance of things to stare at. However, as the plot moved forward it kind of began to make sense why the background was so lacking but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
The Wonderland begins with ill-mannered, high school student Akane seemingly rather bored with her comfy life and fairly uninterested in doing much of anything and having no self-confidence to get it done anyway. Very quickly into The Wonderland you get a massive, lingering shot of a cats balls, followed by face sitting and tail pulling. Yes, this is relevant to the plot. We find out it’s Akane’s birthday and her mom wants her to go pick up her present from Chii, a family friend, at her shop. Akane protests this to no avail and eventually goes off very annoyed by not only the fact that she must pick up her own gift but that she’s being forced to visit Chii, someone she does not like at all.
Enter Chii a merchant, world traveler, serial liar, recently single and ready to tease Akane on her lack of feminine maturity (read: butt). Her shop is her home and it’s loaded to the brim with nick-knacks, books, lights and junk from all over the world, allegedly. Akane begrudgingly explains why she is there and Chii claims to have no recollection of a gift order being placed but goes to check what she can provide. While browsing the shop Akane notices a concrete slab on a table with a hand print in it. Like any teen would she tries to fit her hand into it and, surprising anyone that’s never seen a movie before, it fits and gets stuck. Suddenly, appearing from the basement, Hippocrates, a man claiming to be from another world, is looking for the “Goddess of the Green Wind”. He claims Akane is the one because of her Cinderella hand print because no two women in the world have the same sized hand. Being an alchemist, he forces her to wear a necklace he crafted and refers to as the “Momentum Anchor” that will give her the courage to move forward when everything in her body wants her to run away. Then immediately uses the power of the necklace to force her to follow him to… the basement.
To reiterate: This strange man dressed like the Polar Express conductor appears out of nowhere, forces a teenage girl to wear fancy jewelry and then kidnaps her. It’s ok though because he has a keebler elf-sized sidekick, named Pipo, to make the kidnapping cute. Chii comes along so it’s less weird. Shortly after entering Hippocrates’ world, from the basement, our victims and their kidnappers experience a series of violent events. The power of the Momentum Anchor comes into full swing as Akane is physically incapable of running away from something that is about to kill her. This forces Chii and Hippocrates to pick her up and carry her away so she doesn’t die! For the vast majority of the movie, Akane is adamant about returning home but is powerless to do so. All personal agency is removed and she has no choice but to just go on with whatever she’s told.
This event introduces our villains; A man made of metal and a talking cat magician. Our villains are collecting steel to destroy a well and drives through the world in a tank with a crane claw, terrorizing citizens, stealing metal, food and drink. After a romp around the gorgeous scenery we discover the whole purpose for Akane’s kidnapping: This world is dying. The King and Queen died a few short years apart and the Prince is ill, he’s perpetually sleeping. As he is unable to perform a ritual that makes it rain, the world is experiencing a drought. Naturally, the crops are withering and the sheep’s fur have grown coarse, making sweaters less comfortable pushing a small hamlet near bankruptcy. Hippocrates believes Akane can cure the Prince from his mysterious illness and save capitalism, somehow. It’s not explained very well what they think is going to happen but they know they must enlist the help of a magician that is close to the royal family. So, Hippocrates is on a mission to save his world, it’s an operation to make it rain… erm-Operation Rainfall! That’s what they should have called this movie because “The Wonderland” gives off an entirely different impression that, for me, this movie didn’t exactly live up to. At this point I feel it’s important to mention the original Japanese title of the movie is “Birthday Wonderland”. It is, after all, Akane’s birthday.
Although Akane and Chii are from a different world, no one ever questions their mannerisms, clothing style, language, nothing. One character even explains the technological differences in their worlds to Akane. This world stopped advancing around the beginning of the Industrial era because people were “content with the way of life” and apparently just decided, “ehh”. Which sort of explains the missing city skylines and background details from the beginning of the flick. On Akane and co.’s long trip we visit many exotic locations; There’s a rickety bridge, underwater swimming, 1920’s New York, a court trial by cats where they punish her with face sitting. See, relevant. It has everything you’d expect from a fantasy land all gorgeously crafted and thrilling to watch. From moment to moment it all seems very well done and cute, full of sugar and spice and everything nice, but it all let me asking myself questions like: Why does that exist? How does that work? What relevance does this have to the plot?
Many beautiful scenes later, we discover more about our villains and why they want to destroy this well and so we begin to sympathize. See, he doesn’t terrorize humanity for the fun of it. He’s got an operation going of his own. He’s driven by the belief that the well is the source of the worlds misery and instead of making it rain he wants to destroy… the water supply. I was dazzled by this movie’s ability to make me think this was a good idea while watching it. There’s a lot of issues with The Wonderland‘s story. Plot-holes that make the entire purpose for Akane’s visit kind of meaningless. It is said that this rainfall ceremony has been failed many times in the past and every time the world goes through a drought but the world isn’t dead so why can’t we just let nature run its course and have the hamlet diversify their enterprise? The cat court trial, while being the funniest part of the movie, didn’t make any sense. How do the cats in this world know how she treats her cat back home? Why does the cat in this world look like her cat back home? There are several comments and suggestions made throughout the movie that if given the slightest bit of scrutiny don’t really make much sense and sometimes come off contradictory to what was previously understood. Hippocrates has a way to travel across the world in a few minutes, or maybe hours it’s not really clear how much time passes over the course of this movie, yet only unveils this high-powered engine secret sauce after everyone has risked their lives countless times and it serves purely as a plot device to quickly wrap the story up. Akane and Hippocrates needed to make another Momentum Anchor but Hippocrates tells Akane that she no longer has hers. So where did it go? Why couldn’t they just use that? Like all warm, fuzzy-feely, fantasy plots we discover the strength was within us all along. Akane had the courage and self-confidence to get things done after all. The character development here is subtle. So subtle you can’t tell there was any development at all. All the symbolism from the opening becomes apparent. Akane stops being a brat and loves her mother and cat. Because she has to. Because of the implications.
Overall, I have to say that I honestly did like this movie. The art, animation, voice acting and music are all incredibly well done. The ending, all things considered, is very satisfying and has a fantastic way of bringing the story full circle, now with all the symbolism in the opening having meaning. There’s even a plot twist connecting our villains to our heroes that slightly surprised me. It’s just that the story doesn’t go anywhere for a long time. There’s a lot of filler here that exists to show off the craftsmanship of their artists and animators with an abrupt conclusion as if they simply ran out of locations to draw. If you can turn your brain off and just enjoy the pretty colors, this is a fantastic watch.
The Wonderland Blu-ray comes in Japanese and English dubbing and English subs. It also features commentary voice over by a character designer and director, Ilya Kuvshinov, as well as, two Eleven Arts employees, Chris Platt and Amelie. It wasn’t a bad watch, listening to one of the directors discuss details I missed out on my first play through and other concepts they were trying to work with and convey was really neat though they seemed to have some issues covering the plot-holes mentioned. There’s a 24 minute bonus cast interview that was really just full of jokes and pure silliness with some explanation of how they got to where they are. Finally, there’s also “Mayu’s Amazing Adventure” 17 minutes of what was really just more interview, taken more seriously, that also showed off some real world locations that were inspiration for some of the scenes in the movie. So it was honestly some pretty cool stuff that gave you an insight in how it all came together.
You can grab The Wonderland Blu-ray/DVD for $16.99 right now. Check out the official US trailer below.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher