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Spirited Away   B+

Walt Disney Pictures / Studio Ghibli

Year Released: 2001 (USA: 2002)
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden, David Ogden Stiers, Lauren Holly, John Ratzenberger.

Review by Rob Vaux

I've never been much of an anime fan; the attraction of the genre has always eluded me. I understand its appeal, but even the masterpieces of the genre, like Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Akira or the numerous efforts of Hayao Miyazaki, inspire more respect and admiration than genuine love. But there's something different in Miyazaki's Spirited Away: an indefinable spark that lets the magic shine through. It throws up the same obstacles as its fellows, but brings with it an incandescent joy that rises above the flaws.

My principle difficulty in anime stems from its tendency to ignore basic storytelling in favor of stunning visuals. Hollywood blockbusters are constantly pilloried for this, but the cultural differences between east and west often let anime off the hook. It's not shaky screenwriting, the argument goes; it's a different culture. That somehow makes everything better. Spirited Away falls into that trap at times, coughing up non sequiturs and poor motivation with no warning. Thankfully, Miyazaki always compensates with broad, bold strokes: powerful themes, meditative silences, gorgeous drawing, and an unparalleled visual imagination. Spirited Away takes those assets and adds to them an appealing heroine whose journey readily matches the audience's own. The personal dimension anchors the arbitrary plot, and lets Miyazaki's unquestionable talents take root.

The heroine is Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase), a spoiled, edgy 10-year-old moving to a new town with her parents. One wrong turn in the woods, however, and their boring suburban life takes a turn for the surreal. They find themselves in an eerily abandoned amusement park, with faded stalls and empty thoroughfares... but plates and plates of hot food sitting unattended. Mom and Dad, apparently forgetting their Alice in Wonderland, immediately begin scarfing down, but Chihiro demurs and goes wandering off alone.

The amusement park serves as the home for a plethora of spirits, monsters and shapeshifters -- a fantasy world hidden just out of sight. Like so many fairy-tale girls before her, Chihiro soon finds herself lost and alone, her parents gone and nothing but her wits to depend upon. With the setup in place, Miyazaki unleashes the full force of his imagination with a dizzying array of bizarre creatures and astounding locales. Every frame is packed with detail: not cluttered or arbitrary, but rich and complete, a universe as vibrant as the greatest science fiction films. The centerpiece is a huge bathhouse, run by a bobble-headed witch named Yubaba (voiced by Suzanne Pleshette) who claims Chihiro's name in exchange for giving her a job as a serving girl. Her minions include a gaggle of anthropomorphic toads, a friendly boy (voiced by Jason Marsden) who may be more than he seems, and a spider-limbed engineer (voiced by David Ogden Stiers) with a gruff-but-kind heart. As Chihiro weaves her way through these spirit folk, she learns to rely on herself, to trust her instincts and to let her heart show her the way: good folklore lessons told on a unique canvas.

The sheer detail on display proves a double-edged sword, however, overwhelming the narrative at times and leading to moments that make you scratch your head and go "huh?" Spirited Away keeps such hiccups to a minimum, however, largely by using Chihiro as an audience surrogate. She travels through the landscape as lost and surprised as we are, sharing in our wonder, our awe, and even our confusion. Whenever Spirited Away threatens to overwhelm us, we only need look for her to guide us through the clutter. It also neatly avoids the cultural gaps that make anime difficult for mainstream audiences to embrace. The characters spring from Japanese folklore, but Miyazaki infuses them with such richness that they take on a universal caliber; they could come from any culture in the world, and not a single person would feel ill at ease with them. The voice work helps these efforts immeasurably. It is impossible to underestimate the value of proper actors in an endeavor such as this -- thespian fundamentals like timing and delivery play a huge role with voice-overs. Compare the natural-sounding dialogue here to the clunky (and often-mocked) exposition of smaller anime films; the difference is astounding.

Perhaps the surest sign of Spirited Away's special qualities is the quiet subtlety with which it explores its themes. Besides the fairy-tale aspects of growing up, it touches on such diverse topics as class inequities, consumer greed, and environmentalism, all without rupturing the integrity of its surface story. We rarely see such patience and discipline in western films, and precious few films anywhere that make it so engaging. Spirited Away conjures up a beautiful, diverse, richly envisioned tale that constantly delights... even when it verges on the limits of coherence. I respect and admire every one of Miyazaki's films, but Spirited Away may be the first one I really like.

Review published 10.15.2002.

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