by Kim Morrissy,

Birthday Wonderland

Birthday Wonderland
Akane is a girl with no self-confidence. On the day before her birthday, she meets a mysterious alchemist Hippocrates and his student Pipo, who tell her they're on a mission to save the world. Together, they set out from the basement for "Wonderland," and Akane finds herself labelled Wonderland's savior.

Birthday Wonderland is a film with a remarkable pedigree. Director Keiichi Hara's previous film Miss Hokusai won film awards internationally, but he's also well-known for directing Colorful, a dark tale of teen problems, and some of the most critically acclaimed Crayon Shin-chan films, which are beloved by both children and adults. Unfortunately, it's hard to see that reputation in this film, which is a straightforward children's adventure story for the most part. This wouldn't be a bad thing if it weren't so protracted and lacking in narrative tension that even an adult viewer like myself lost patience in it.

The film is based on Sachiko Kashiwaba's 1988 children's book Chikashitsu Kara no Fushigi na Tabi (Strange Journey From The Basement), which in turn appears to be heavily inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Our preteen protagonist gets drawn into a strange world filled with magic and strange creatures, but the big difference from Alice in Wonderland is that Akane is called into this world to become its savior, and she is guided everywhere by its locals from the start. Instead of being a whimsical tromp through a fantasy land, Birthday Wonderland tells a standard coming-of-age story with no detours.

Another big difference is that Akane is taken to the fantasy world along with an adult, a free-spirited antique shop owner named Chi. Chi acts as Akane's guardian throughout the film, although she doesn't actually factor into the overarching plot that much; she's really just along for the ride. Her role in the film would feel entirely superfluous if she didn't drive a car. Chi's presence makes Akane's adventure feel like a school excursion, where adults are constantly holding her hand and driving her everywhere.

In some ways, this gels with the film's themes. Birthday Wonderland is a story about gaining confidence in oneself. Instead of throwing Akane into the deep end to fend for herself like how most of these "whisked into another world" stories would do, Birthday Wonderland puts her into a mostly safe and controlled environment. Even when she encounters the film's villains, they largely seem interested in causing mischief and aren't inclined to harm or impede her directly. She may have been taken out of her comfort zone, but that's the extent of it. It's as if you're watching a child go to camp for the first time and gain some confidence out of it. This intent is especially clear after Akane returns to her home world and talks to her mother about her experiences.

At the same time, the lack of twists or narrative tension seriously hurts this film. Akane's journey is remarkably smooth and uneventful. Her progress is impeded only by minor inconveniences, like having to sit around for a day and wait for the car to be repaired after a sudden sandstorm. The closest thing to an "unexpected obstacle" is when one of her guides confronts the villains behind the scenes and ends up turning into a fly. Akane and the others think he's gone away on a trip and aren't particularly bothered about it. They get along just fine without him.

Akane may have been called into this world to become its savior, but throughout most of the film, it never feels as if her presence is particularly needed. Throughout the film, Akane is told that the world is losing its color and that there's a major water shortage, although this is not evident at all from a visual perspective. The scenery is colorful and full of greenery, and human settlements are populated with happy people. When the film finally hits its climax, it clumsily attempts to inject the narrative with some urgency, but by this point, I had lost all interest in the dramatic stakes. Birthday Wonderland could have leaned into its appeal as a road trip film, but the half-baked conflict adds nothing to the charm.

There are some scattered moments that I like. The opening scenes immediately after Akane and Chi enter the world feel the most like Alice in Wonderland, as strange things happen one after another, and the protagonists have no choice but to take it in stride. The characters - especially Chi - do spend too much time commenting on how weird things are rather than letting the weirdness speak for itself, but there are some genuinely amusing moments. The dynamic between the uptight Hippocrates and the free-spirited Chi is also pretty funny. To be honest, there were multiple occasions when I thought that Chi would be a more interesting protagonist than Akane, who mostly sulks her way through the adventure.

Visually speaking, the film is strong but not a standout. I like the character designs by Ilya Kuvshinov, but I also can't help but feel that his design for Akane looks too old. It was jarring to see Akane's friends in elementary school wearing the iconic red randoseru bags, because they all look like they're in their mid-teens. Kuvshinov's female characters lean more towards "pretty" than "cute," and although it makes for a striking visual on the film's poster, I initially had the wrong impression that the story would be aimed more at older tastes.

Otherwise, I'd describe the film's aesthetic as "generically pleasing." It reminds me of Mary and The Witch's Flower, which was also based on a short children's book that didn't have quite enough substance to be compelling as a feature-length film. Although the characters visit plenty of locales throughout their journey in the world of Birthday Wonderland, they're all fairly stereotypical fantasy world staples, and I came out of the film still not quite grasping the overall aesthetic.

It's a pity that I found Birthday Wonderland to be so dull because I'm normally a fan of lighthearted fantasy stories like these. I think that Hara was trying to craft a film that could appeal to both child and adult sensibilities, but in the end I suspect that it may be too long and uneventful to grab the attention of children, and too simplistic to appeal to adults. Hara is a fine director, so I hope that next time he picks a better story to bring to the screen.

Overall : C+
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B-

+ Some fun and whimsical moments, Akane's character development feels natural
Lacks narrative tension, story can be slow and dull, Akane's character design doesn't suit her

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Production Info:
Director: Keiichi Hara
Original creator: Sachiko Kashiwaba
Character Design: Ilya Kuvshinov

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Birthday Wonderland (movie)

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