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With: (voices) Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden, Susan Egan
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
MPAA Rating: PG for some scary moments
Running Time: 90
Date: 07/20/2001

Spirited Away (2002)

4 Stars (out of 4)

That's the 'Spirit'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the past 30 years or so, only a few animated features have proventhemselves truly remarkable. In a historical context, Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira introduced the concept of anime to a larger Western audience than ever before, and John Lasseter's Toy Story proved that computer animation was a viable creative outlet, while Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale's Beauty and the Beast became the first animated feature to be considered for a Best Picture Oscar. On a purely artistic level, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a brilliant, groundbreaking combination of live action and animation, and Brad Bird's The Iron Giant was simply the best animated film of recent years. If I may be allowed a little hyperbole, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away joins and surpasses that selective group, becoming an animation landmark as monumental as Disney's 1937 breakthrough Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Miyazaki, whose other great films include My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, has often been called the Japanese Disney, but Spirited Away soars into areas of imagination that would baffle Disney's multimillion dollar marketing team. Nonetheless, Disney has hired the aforementioned Kirk Wise and John Lasseter to supervise their United States release of this film, and they've done a crackerjack job, remaining as faithful as possible to Miyazaki's Japanese original (which I saw at last April's SF International Film Festival).

The fun begins when 10 year-old Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase, of Lilo & Stitch) and her parents pack all their belongings into their car and hit the road for a new town and a new home. Chihiro is not happy with this situation. She clutches a bouquet of flowers given to her by her best friend, whom she'll probably never see again. The family tries a short cut, gets lost and stops in front of a pitch-dark tunnel guarded by a tubby gnome-like statue. They decide to explore a little, and before the evening is out, Chihiro will find herself in an unexpected, frightening, beautiful and odd new world full of gods, monsters and other assorted creatures.

To be brief, and without giving away too much of the treasures that await you in this film, Chihiro's parents indulge in some enchanted food and find themselves transformed into pigs. Befriended by the human Haku (voiced by Jason Marsden), Chihiro must get a job with the witch-like Yubaba (voiced by Suzanne Pleshette) in order to keep herself from being added to the barnyard.

Like Alice in Wonderland, the adventure begins by going through a dark hole, though from there nothing else really resembles that Lewis Carroll tale, and Miyazaki's story feels like the makings of a classic in its own right. Not to mention that Carroll did not have the means to tell a story visually like Miyazaki does. Disney fans may notice that Miyazaki's hand-drawn cells lack the processed smoothness of the American releases, but Miyazaki's patience runs infinitely deeper. Witness the scene in which Chihiro descends a long, scary staircase that runs along the side of a tall tower. She very carefully and quietly crouches down, extends a single toe, pulls herself down. One step at a time. Then two. Miyazaki keeps things quiet, allowing Chihiro to concentrate. Suddenly a step cracks, and she tears screaming down the remaining steps, getting a laugh and adding another layer to her already complex character.

Miyazaki gets more out of weather and mundane movements than any other animator. When a wounded river god soars, pitches and ripples through the sky, Miyazaki pays special attention to the way his tail moves, the way the wind tears apart as he passes by and the way the blood flies in crimson spatters off his body. That's what he does best, but even something small and seeminglty throwaway, like Yubaba's sidekicks -- three bouncing, grunting bald heads with beards -- have a strange feel all their own.

I wish I had room to describe my favorite scenes, one after the other, but I realize I have too many of them. What astonishes me is that they keep coming, well into the movie's final third, when Disney features usually turn into mindless chases. Indeed, Spirited Away's two-hour-plus running time barely seems like enough to contain all its ideas. Spirited Away is as gently frightening and superbly enchanting as any movie I can remember. It's a combination of the best of Miyazaki: the warm, child-friendly Totoro and Kiki with the fantastic, cruel and more adult Mononoke. I admit I did not warm to Princess Mononoke as much as some of my colleagues did, but Spirited Away easily trumps it. It's a masterpiece, and undoubtedly one of the year's best films.

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