PLOT Two children, in two different decades, search for their parents.
CAST Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds
RATED PG (some scary moments)
PLAYING AT Malverne Cinema 4, Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington
BOTTOM LINE Lots of pretty moments, but there’s little magic in this contrived children’s movie.
Two stories unfold in two different time frames in “Wonderstruck,” the film version of an illustrated novel by Brian Selznick (“The Invention of Hugo Cabret”). In 1927, a young deaf girl named Rose escapes her imperious father and flees to nearby New York City, where she hopes to be taken back by her mother, a famous actress (Julianne Moore). In 1977, a Minnesota boy named Ben, also deaf, travels to New York as well, hoping to find the father he never knew. Cryptic clues and odd coincidences litter the paths of Rose and Ben, whose journeys mirror each other’s so closely that they magically converge.
That, at least, is what “Wonderstruck” is hoping we’ll think. Inventively directed by Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “I’m Not There”) from Selznick’s script, “Wonderstruck” checks all the right boxes for an artfully made children’s movie: narrative symmetry, snippets of poetry, moments of serendipity, well-researched New York history. Unfortunately, most of it feels contrived, and little feels genuinely magical.
That’s a shame, because “Wonderstruck” has potential. Few cities brim with excitement like New York, and the filmmakers have chosen two of its best eras. The 1977 sequences, starring a long-haired Oakes Fegley as Ben, are filmed in Kodachrome-style yellows and look impressively authentic, especially Times Square’s scuzzy storefronts and the Port Authority’s decrepit interiors. The 1927 story line, starring Millicent Simmonds as Rose, doesn’t feel quite as vivid, partly because the black-and-white cinematography by Edward Lachman seems gauzy and generic.
Haynes, a wildly adventurous director, brings as many visual ideas as he can to this material. Rose’s sequences are silent, which fits both the period and the protagonist; the music, by Carter Burwell, is intentionally on point, with pounded piano chords to match angry faces and accusatory fingers; and New York’s twinkling landscape is clearly a scale model, for reasons that eventually become clear.
None of this, though, can compensate for the stiff acting, the stilted dialogue (Selznick wrote the script from his novel) and the film’s disappointing payoff, a revelation so unexpected that it seems almost randomly generated. The title of “Wonderstruck” tells us how to feel, but the movie itself never really gives us a reason.