The plot of Wonderstruck, when described, sounds like the most rhapsodic of fables, blending childlike fantasy and New York City nostalgia to tell a story buoyed by swelling music and intricate visuals. The film follows two kids, a girl in the 1920s and a boy in the 1970s, each navigating the American Museum of Natural History by themselves, and each deaf (the girl born that way, the boy after a recent accident). The museum links them together in some mysterious way, and the director Todd Haynes wants to illuminate that connection for his audience by methodically unpacking this puzzle box.
But Wonderstruck is too concerned with the process of laying everything out; the film gets bogged down in the particulars of the plot when it could have easily engrossed me in its mood and atmosphere alone. It’s a curious follow-up to Haynes’s wonderful last film Carol, another period tale set in New York that established its tone effortlessly and lived in the little details. Wonderstruck seems lost by comparison, spending much of its time laboriously explaining a story that ends up feeling leaden. In its quieter moments, Wonderstruck occasionally approaches the transcendent, sublime quality Haynes is aiming for—but those times are frustratingly few and far between.
Some of the blame should be laid at the feet of Brian Selznick, the children’s book author and illustrator who adapted his own novel for this movie. His earlier book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was filmed as Hugo by Martin Scorsese in 2011 and had a similar clockwork approach to storytelling; there was a mystery, relating to the past, which had to be painstakingly uncovered by a plucky orphan. Hugo succeeded on the back of its sheer visual splendor. The movie was set in a gorgeous 3D rendering of the Gare Montparnasse circa 1931, and its opulence reflected the film’s subject, the director Georges Méliès, who was an original master of cinematic spectacle.
Wonderstruck has a more obscure topic in mind: the “cabinets of wonder,” or curiosity cabinets, that were the precursor of museums of natural history and science around the world. These are visually striking objects, to be sure—massive, overstuffed, room-sized pieces of furniture bursting at the seams with dinosaur bones, ancient weaponry, and all kinds of baroque imagery and art. But unlike the work of Méliès, they’re entirely static. Though the cabinets are beautiful creations designed to be taken in as illustrations, making them ideal for Selznick’s books (which are heavy on the art), they’re less exciting onscreen.
Haynes’s cinematic approach to Wonderstruck is similar to those cabinets: This is a film that feels inert at times despite being crammed with ideas. The 1927 storyline is shot in black and white, mimicking the silent movies of the era, with a swelling orchestral score by the frequent Haynes collaborator Carter Burwell. Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is a young girl apparently besotted with a great actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), and besieged at home by an imperious father (James Urbaniak), who locks her away out of concern that her deafness puts her in some undefinable danger. She escapes and goes on an adventure in New York, first seeking out Lillian, then finding herself in the Museum of Natural History.
In the 1977 storyline, the orphaned Ben (Oakes Fegley) is pining for his mother (Michelle Williams), a lovely-seeming librarian who mysteriously refused to tell him who his father was. After she dies in a car accident and he’s deafened by a lightning strike, he runs away from his home in Minnesota. Spurred by an old postcard he finds in a book, he also travels to New York in search of answers and gets lost in the museum. There, he befriends Jamie (Jaden Michael), the son of an employee, who shows him the place’s hidden nooks and crannies. Moore is in this storyline too, in slightly risible old-age makeup, showing up to fill in Ben on all the missing details of his life (to explain further would be to spoil the movie).
If this sounds like a lot of plot, it certainly is, and it’s told rather ploddingly. There are whole scenes consisting of Ben or Rose writing out and reading messages on pieces of paper, since neither of their characters knows sign language. Rather than establish a narrative shorthand for his characters’ struggle to communicate, Haynes homes in on it, seemingly identifying it as the reason for so much of the unexplained misery in their lives. But it’s hard to know what that has to do with the stuff involving the museum, which is stunning to look at but mostly comes off as expensive set dressing for a convoluted plot.
Haynes, at his best, is a masterful visual storyteller. His films like Safe, Far From Heaven, and Carol are remarkable achievements that are long on both atmosphere and emotion, and with Wonderstruck, I can see what drew him to the project. Simmonds, Fegley, and Michael are winning young performers, communicating innocent amazement at the right moments and childlike confidence at others. Perhaps the film would have worked better if it were entirely silent, channeling its ideas through melodramatic sights of awe and majesty. But as it burrows into the story minutiae, it loses focus—for all the period detail, Wonderstruck fails when it strives for simpler emotional truths.