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Wonderland, The (2019) [FANTASIA 2019]

In most stories where our lead characters find themselves transported to another world, they react in disbelief and confusion. Refreshingly, when one of The Wonderland's leads is told that the basement in her nick-nack shop is connected to another world, she reacts differently. "We know from novels and films about a different world that's close to ours", she says."Also- is it part of the multiverse?"

The Wonderland (originally screened as Birthday Wonderland) is the new film from Keiichi Hara (Miss Hokusai, Colourful). It's adapted from a novel by Sachiko Kashiwaba, and written by Hara's frequent collaborator Miho Maruo. The film received its North American premiere at the Fantasia Festival in Montreal on July 14, 2019.

Before we can get to the wonderland though, we have to meet our leads. The film opens by introducing us to Akane,  a sweet enough, if slightly spoilt teenager, living her everyday life- attending school, having trouble with friends, teasing her cat. The first thing you'll notice, is that that film is absolutely gorgeous. Smoothly animated, and featuring beautiful character designs from ultra-talented Russian artist Ilya Kuvshinov, marking his debut anime project, it looks fantastic. Accompanied by a delightful score, the opening few minutes have a wonderfully summery feel. It's almost a shame to leave Akane's regular life behind.

But leave it we must, as Akane's Mum sends her off to visit shop-owner Chii (apparently her aunt although tt's never really explained at least in the subtitled version). It's in this shop that lies the trapdoor to the basement connected to The Wonderland, and from which arrives a smartly dressed fellow named Hippocrates (an alchemist) and his pint-sized companion Pipo. They believe Akane is "The Goddess Of The Green Wind" and is needed to bring back colour to Wonderland.

The land beyond is a strange one indeed. Humans live side-by-side with giant animals (most memorably colossal sheep and gaint fish) and magic mixes with some modern technology such as cars. At times it seems almost random, but the fact that the journey through this other world is basically a roadtrip (in a convertible no less) is nothing if not novel.

Any connection with the Lewis Carol book suggested by the English title goes no further than the basic idea of a young girl transported to another world. Akane is not Alice and this is very much its own thing.

The wonderland is being menaced by a "mechanical mouse",  which is, in fact, a form of tank driven by the film's apparent villain, a sinister-looking character with a skull mask. But as with everything else here, he is not quite what he first appears to be.

It's unusual for the protagonist in these stories to have a chaperone, so having Chii along for the ride gives it a fresh spin. But rather than being the responsible adult, Chii is, in fact, the more adventurous of the two, always encouraging the reluctant Akane to step outside her comfort zone. In most stories, our hero is whisked away on their own, but here Chii insists on coming along. Beyond the central two, the characters are pretty thinly drawn (Hippocrates character is basically just an exposition device) but still entertaining. And Akane's cat has to be the film's breakout star.

The film has a somewhat languid pace and over-inflated running time. It held my attention just fine, but whether the same will be true for the film's intended audience of youngsters is questionable. The films visuals don't really live up to the opening hour either. Kuvshinov's talents obviously lie in designing pretty girl characters, and his male characters, older women or fantasy creatures are sadly nowhere near as distinctive. These designs are perfectly decent- just nowhere near as good as his best work.

Still, these are relatively minor grumbles in what is, for the most part, a very entertaining fantasy adventure, with some of the best 2D animated visuals you'll see this year. If you're after a fresh fantasy with a distinctive flavour- you'll find it here.



IN A NUTSHELL: Keiichi Hara takes us on a weird and wonderful trip through a fantasy land- with some seriously gorgeous animation. 

*Screener provided by Fantasia Festival*