Review for Birthday Wonderland - Collector's Edition

6 / 10


I’m apparently doing better than most when it comes to my anime to-watch pile. It’s common practice to splurge for the holiday sales, stock up on all the bargain anime that you scrupulously abstained from over the year when closer to retail prices, and then just pile them up, to watch them as and when free time turns up. Some people have anime that they bought years ago that they have yet to peel the cellophane from. I’ve only had Birthday Wonderland on my unwatched anime pile for a year. You also know how it is during the holiday sales, you’ll take a punt on a show that you wouldn’t consider at any other time, only because it’s £5 in a BOGOF. There are more kids’ fantasy adventure anime movies than you can shake a stick at. Birthday Wonderland will have to do something special to stand out.

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It’s not every girl who gets to take a day off school at a whim, but then again, Akane’s birthday is imminent, and her mother is sympathetic. But she does have to do at least one chore, go to her aunt Chii’s bric-a-brac store and collect her birthday present. But this birthday takes a turn for the bizarre, when from the basement of the store emerges a dapper alchemist named Hippocrates, and a genuine fairy named Pipo. They recognise Akane as the Goddess of the Green Wind, and want her to come back to their world, existing parallel to our own, to save that world from disaster. Water is becoming scarce, and colour is vanishing from the world. But if the Goddess of the Green Wind can heal the prince, then he can complete a special ritual and restore water to the world. But there are some who want to prevent this from happening at any cost.

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Birthday Wonderland gets a 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc, with the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English and Japanese, with subtitles and signs locked during playback. It’s a nice transfer, clear and sharp as it should be, with rich and consistent colours all making the most of the fluid animation, and the delightful world and character designs. The audio too is impressive, nice and immersive, and dynamic enough to make the most of the film’s action and effects sequences. The music is nice and jaunty, and as uplifting as the genre demands, although song lyrics aren’t subtitled for the theme, or more importantly the in story songs. The subtitles are timed accurately, but there are the odd typos that escaped spellcheck. Not too many shepherds sheer a sheep.

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You get two discs in a digipack, the film on DVD and on Blu-ray. This slides inside a thick card artcase. You can also slide in the blurb sheet that you’ll find behind the cellophane. The big physical extra is the 40 page booklet, with a character guide, key animation artwork, settings, and other production art, as well as a couple of pages of essay from Jonathan Clements. The Blu-ray disc boots to an animated menu, and you’ll find the following extras.

“Our Wonderland” Cast Interview (23:28)
Maya Matsuoka’s Amazing Adventure (16:57)
Trailers x2 (3:03)

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It’s never a good sign when the making of a movie, as detailed in Jonathan Clements’ essay in the back of the booklet, is more interesting than the film itself. Don’t get me wrong, Birthday Wonderland is a perfectly serviceable, family adventure, a coming of age story that takes a troubled child into a fantasy realm, to complete an epic quest, and on the way, learn something meaningful about their perspective on life. It’s just that there are so many coming of age, kids movies like this out there, that you need something special indeed to stand out, and against films like Brave Story, Journey to Agartha, Welcome to the Space Show, The Cat Returns, indeed most of the Ghibli back catalogue, Birthday Wonderland seems kind of insipid.

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For one thing, the film’s protagonist, Akane doesn’t have much in the way of issues. She’s shy to be sure, not interested in putting herself forward, but by and large the largest issue she faces is waking up to a cat’s arse. She’s reluctant to step into another world, but luckily for the plot, her Bohemian aunt Chii is a lot more outgoing, and as well giving her a push, decides to tag along for the adventure as well. Their guides on this odyssey through a parallel world are Hippocrates, a rather stuffy librarian of an alchemist, and the adorable fairy Pipo, who is his apprentice. The first thing they encounter on this journey is a veritable tank, an “armoured mouse” piloted by the obnoxious trainee wizard Doropo, and the ominous and skeletal Zan-gu. If it isn’t immediately obvious that they are the film’s antagonists, Zan-gu’s stated aims of ending the water ritual once and for all make that abundantly clear.

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So follows a travelogue/race-against-time through this fantasy world, as they head towards the Prince, in the hope of curing what ails him. Of course there is a twist in the tale, but I found the film to be rather hard going. The characters, while occasionally effervescent and idiosyncratic, lacked the depth to really make me empathise for any of them. And I never felt the urgency to the story, any sense of pace or drama. Watching this as a film was actually hard going for me, and I had to split this 2 hour film across three viewings. I wound up thinking that the story would have been better served as a 1-cour series, or even a short OVA.

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Birthday Wonderland works. It’s a very well put together, visually imaginative coming of age kids’ adventure movie. The story is weak, and the characters are weaker, but that doesn’t stop it from entertaining with a few endearing ideas that give it its own identity. You can read about the associated controversy in Jonathan Clements’ essay, but in a world where you can buy Spirited Away to watch, Birthday Wonderland is always going to be a distant also-ran.

Birthday Wonderland can be had from Anime on Line, and direct from Anime Limited, as well as mainstream retailers. You can try United Publications, but the home video retail aspect will close at the end of 2023.

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