Keiichi Hara, known for “Summer Days with Coo” (2007) and his more recent anime hit “Miss Hokusai” (2015), delivers “Birthday Wonderland” – an ecological road movie about friendship.

Birthday Wonderland” is now screening at /slash film festival.

The story centers around the young girl Akane and her family friend Chii, who is the owner of a curiosity shop. Her shop is the setting for a strange encounter with the Alchemist Mr. Hippocrates and his little helper, Pipo. As they enter through a portal in the cellar of the shop in search of the so-called “Goddess of the Green Wind”, they seem to have found their chosen one in Akane. From now on she is determined to follow them into their world to solve the imminent water shortage crisis.

“Birthday Wonderland” is a big-budget anime production by Warner Brother Japan, Aniplex and Fuji TV. In a “Ferris Bueller”- like manner, the schoolgirl Akane takes an adventurous trip far from her boring everyday life to save an unknown parallel world. Akane’s environment is beautifully drawn. Colorful and detailed background animations make up for a clumsy character design that appears a little stiff because of its sharp lines. The bronze-colored landscapes and cities of the wonderland are nicely done as well as the feral inhabitants. Keiichi Hara’s imagination is overwhelming.

The society of the wonderland is divided into two parties, who war against each other. The alchemists versus the magicians. Above both of them rules the royal family with a young prince at its top. The land is also divided into different areas. Zang Gu, the irascible antagonist, and his sidekick Doropo are placed in the industrial town Hibi, a dark place, dominated by iron, steel, and technology. In opposition to that is the rest of the land, which is characterized by a laid back, agricultural lifestyle based on farming. The two zones underline the ecological conflict that the anime wants to show between environmentalism and industrialization.

Storywise, the anime has some weak points. Chii, the experienced traveler, steals the show from the modest Akane. As a hero, Akane is very passive and has to prove her strength only at the very end. That’s why her character is not so much on the spot during most parts of the movie. The solving problems appear randomly and the overall crisis is not fully explained. Most of the journey’s challenges are trivial and do not create a menacing atmosphere. Also, a lot of important plot points are not further defined, like the showdown that manifests itself in a water ceremony that is announced throughout the whole movie, but its purpose is rather fishy. The randomly appearing problems of the hero’s journey are solved with cheap solutions that do not live up to Hara’s creativity. Humor is nearly not existing and the funny moments are rare.

“Birthday Wonderland” has a lot of plotholes. The partly annoying soundtrack reminds of other stereotype anime productions that revolve around the coming of age travel theme. In the course of the movie, the soundtrack gets better and finishes off with a nice closing theme by milet.

Akane as the main character does not function very well, because she is simply too inactive. The anime focusses more on Chii, who is more favorable. At the big finale, the movie suddenly decides to leave her completely out and pushes Akane into the spotlight. Just because. This makes no sense. The idea behind the character development is reasonable since Akane is supposed to be the shy girl that turns into the savior of a whole nation, but I would have liked a bit more action from her.