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WONDERSTRUCK: NOT WHAT I HOPED FOR

I wanted to love this movie and had every reason to think I would. Wonderstruck wowed many critics on the festival circuit, but somehow it never drew me in. Much as I wanted to be engaged, I remained aloof from the story and characters. It’s not for lack of effort on the part of director Todd Haynes or screenwriter Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret), who adapted his own novel. They have created two worlds fifty years apart and provided clues to the connection between them. We are challenged to put the pieces together as the parallel stories develop.

Oakes Fegley, who was so good in Pete’s Dragon, plays a boy who desperately misses his mother (Michelle Williams), who has died in an auto accident. She frustrated him by never revealing anything about his father…so he runs away from home in Minnesota and takes a bus to New York City, with a bookmark from a used bookstore his only clue. The year is 1977 and the city is a funky, filthy landscape. To add to his problems, a recent incident has rendered him deaf.

Newcomer Millicent Simmonds, who is actually deaf, makes the same journey a half-century earlier, in 1927. She has only to cross the Hudson River from New Jersey but she, too, seeks answers in the big city. All we know about the isolated girl is that she is devoted to a silent-movie actress (Julianne Moore) and determined to track her down.

Wonderstruck teases us with tantalizing ingredients: a “book of wonders,” an elaborate diorama of New York City filled with little moving parts, a secret room in the Museum of Natural History, a silent movie released in 1927 when talkies were about to burst on the scene. Yet the potential of these components is never fully realized, so they remain little more than footnotes to the story.

I should have felt a connection to these youngsters and their search, but I didn’t. If anything, I grew impatient to see how the stories would resolve. Along the way, there is much to admire in Mark Friedberg’s production design and Ed Lachman’s cinematography, which turn 1927 Manhattan into a black & white dreamscape. Since so much of the film is without dialogue it becomes a virtual silent picture, dependent on the expressive faces of its actors and Carter Burwell’s music. (The soundtrack also makes great use of a track I haven’t heard in ages, Deodato’s disco version of “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” to evoke the 1970s.)

It’s always discouraging when I don’t care for a film that was clearly a labor of love for the talented people involved. I’m sure other people will respond differently to Wonderstruck, but I was anticipating an emotional and immersive experience and didn’t get it.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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