Wonderstruck ★★★½

I went into Wonderstruck not knowing anything about it, other than it was the new Todd Haynes film. The last thing I expected from it was that it would be, essentially, a movie for kids. I don't mean this as a slight; although it does get a bit precious, it quickly reminded me of two older movies, both about and very appealing to younger audiences.

The first of these was The Hideaways, or, as I remember it, The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I was shown this movie in school more than once during the 1980s, and its premise made a big impression on me, long before I had any idea who Ingrid Bergman was. I picked up on tonal echoes of that movie in Wonderstruck long before their even more direct narrative connection became apparent. Wonderstruck might have the same appeal to today's kids, which is a value I appreciate even though it reached a bit further into sentimentally precious territory than I care for as an adult.

Another movie that Wonderstruck evoked early on was the wonderful 1953 cinema verite classic Little Fugitive, about a young child wandering around Manhattan. With its twin narratives set in New York Cities almost equal time spans on either side of 1953, Wonderstruck may lack the dazzlingly authentic glimpse of the city as it was, but it makes for a neat set of somewhat similar bookends to that movie.

There were also hints here and there during Wonderstruck that tangentially recalled Martin Scorsese's 2011 childhood drama Hugo, but I was unaware of the direct connection between them until the end credits, when it dawned on me that both films were based on books by the same author, Brian Selznick, and I instantly remembered checking out Wonderstruck from the library a few years back for one of my kids.

Those three movies -- The Hideaways, Little Fugitive, and Hugo -- give a fair idea of what to expect from a movie that feels simultaneously freshly original and too obviously formulaic. As an adult, I grew impatient with the drawn-out climax when the connections being made were very easy to figure out much earlier, but I think Wonderstruck has a fair shot at instilling in some of the more sensitive kids the kind of innocent real-life emotional adventure and excitement that used to be more common in family entertainment. While the mix of Haynes and Selznick doesn't seem obvious, and nor does the director seem to have a natural affinity for this kind of material, what he does with it is interesting and effective enough to be worthwhile.