Based on the 1981 children's book by Sachiko Kashiwaba, The Mysterious Journey from the Basement, Birthday Wonderland travels well-trodden ground for family-friendly fantasy. Our main heroine is named Akane, the Japanese equivalent to Alice, which on its own is enough to conjure Lewis Carrol associations, let alone the fact that Akane goes on a journey through the titular Wonderland, a bright and colorful land saturated in the magical charm by a bygone era.
Akane, who skips school the day before her birthday to visit her aunt's antique shop, is drawn into this parallel dimension by a mustachioed, well-dressed gentleman called Hippocrates the Alchemist, and his miniature assistant, Pipo. Emerging from the shop's basement, he informs Akane of her true purpose: restoring water to his drought-ridden world as the "Goddess of the Green Wind." Not one to be left out of a free holiday, Akane's aunt, Chii, insists on coming along, hoping she can pick up some interesting pieces to stock in her shop.
Stepping through the basement and then into an abstract, swirling wormhole, Akane and Chii soon arrive in a pastoral land straight out of a postcard-perfect, pre-Industrial Britain, albeit one also inhabited by giant, pink birds and oversized flocks of sheep. Not all is well, however: there's a mysterious, armored figure called Zang -- with his own adorably mischievous student of the magical arts at his side -- roaming around in a metal tank stealing scrap iron -- and whatever else the pair can get their hands on. Akane and Chii also told about the problem of a missing price, the circumstances of which prevent a ceremony being carried out that is supposed to bring rainfall back to the land. Zang's goal is to prevent this ceremony from happening at all costs.
Like most heroes burdened with sudden and weighty purpose, Akane is uncertain about the role she's supposed to be playing in all this. Chii, on the other hand, is content to just saddle up for a good time, even indulging in a little too much free wine in the house of a nearby town's Mayor and winding up the prim and proper Hippocrates with her inappropriate interjections around the dinner table. "No alcohol, no life!" is the mantra she tells her embarrassed niece.
Chii's relaxed mood is actually representative of the film's general tone. While the water shortage plot could have created an atmosphere of fear and discontent, the Wonderland is still a lush and vibrant place to explore, while its populace remains worried but generally pretty chipper in the face of a global crisis. The stakes never feel particularly high as a result, but this is deliberate: the film is far more concerned with offering light entertainment value. Even Zang, who we see torture a kidnapped blacksmith in a workshop overflowing with Mordor-abating fire and brimstone, is never overly imposing, despite his great character design. His anonymity behind a vented mask, as well as his temper and relative lack of speech, give him something of a Darth Vader feel -- if Darth Vader existed in Narnia rather than a galaxy far, far away.
For the most part, Birthday Wonderland chooses to treat the journey itself as the story rather than the actual plot, as Akane, Chii, Hippocrates and Pipo meander through the kind of varying environments you'd expect in a quest-based tale, from a sleepy farming community to a snowy village to a red and windy desert, all of which are handsomely realized by Studio.MD (Napping Princess, Cyborg 009: Call of Justice). Each of these drop-off points offers eccentric characters and cozy charm, while the hurdles the main group encounter are more inconveniences that against-all-odds problems. This is all well within director Keiichi Hara's wheelhouse, who has been working on child-friendly projects like this one for most of his 30-year plus career, beginning with one of Japan's most iconic, Doraemon. His last film, Miss Hokusai, a biopic of the daughter of the famed Japanese woodblock artist, skewed a little older and had the benefit of a more resonant theme than Birthday Wonderland.
A lack of urgency and danger in Birthday Wonderland isn't necessarily a problem when you think back to the other children's fantasy stories it pulls from. Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, for all their shades of darkness, don't need to rely on the kind of world-ending imperative that Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings does because they're cut from a different, gentler cloth of fairy tale whimsy. Where the film -- and probably its source text -- does fall down, however, is in these close associations to similar classics that we've seen remade time and time again on the cinema screen. As well as the work of Lewis Caroll and L. Frank Baum, there's also a little Pinocchio and even Beauty and the Beast thrown in there too. Character development is also sorely lacking in its two heroines. It's hard to see much of a difference in Akane before and after she tumbled down the rabbit hole, though Zang's arc is not only existant but also interesting enough to almost make up for this oversight.
In the end, Birthday Wonderland plays out as the kind of treat you'd be satisfied to get for your own birthday: fun, sweet and easily digestible, though unlikely to linger on your tongue for long.