Special Note: "Spirited Away," distributed by Walt Disney Pictures,
has been released in the U.S. as an English-dubbed version with the
voice talents of Daveigh Chase, James Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette,
Lauren Holly, Michael Chicklis, David Ogden Stiers, and John Ratzenberger.
For some sort of unknown, "Twilight Zone"-style reason, the theater
I saw it in (Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7 in Arlington, VA) projected
the original Japanese-voiced, English-subtitled version. Therefore,
I cannot comment on the dubbed voices or anything else that might
pertain exclusively to the American edition.
"Spirited Away," the latest animated gem from visionary filmmaker
Hayao Miyazaki (1999's "Princess Mononoke"), has gone on to become
the top-grossing feature in Japan's history (surpassing 1997's "Titanic"),
and is the only movie ever to be released in the U.S. after already
earning $200-million worldwide. How much money a film racks up is
not a measurement of quality, to be sure, but when something like
"Titanic" or "Spirited Away" takes the world by storm in such a prosperous
way, there has to be a valid reason.
The answer? As sheerly imaginative and groundbreakingly wondrous as
any animated motion picture you are sure to have seen, to date, Hayao
Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" has been widely described as a cross between
"The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland." I would wager to also
throw in "The Neverending Story." It would also be fair to wager that,
as much as there is a resemblance, "Spirited Away" has a genuine,
one-of-a-kind voice--and a beautiful lyricism not seen in American
animation--all its own. To see "Spirited Away" is to indulge in a
124-minute cavalcade of breathtaking images, colorfully precise animation,
well-drawn characters, and an invention in fresh storytelling that
has to be seen to be completely understood.
The film begins as sulky 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents are on
their way to move to the suburbs. After taking a wrong turn on the
road, they come upon a black tunnel that leads them to what the father
guesses is a closed-down theme park. "They were popular back in the
early 1990's," he says. When her parents make the wrong decision to
feast on a table of fresh food they have come upon, Chihiro finds
herself alone outside of the human world and in a kind of alternate
universe where spirits rule. Chihiro makes a friend in Haku (Miyu
Irino), a young warrior boy who suggests she bide her time waiting
to return home by getting a job at a far-from-ordinary bathhouse.
As Chihiro quickly learns, nothing is ordinary in a world overrun
by witches, monsters, and transparent spirits.
To say much more about the story of "Spirited Away" would do a disservice
to Hayao Miyazaki's remarkable work, which has been lovingly crafted
in such a way that its many cinematic treats are meant to be discovered
on the viewer's own. Director Miyazaki, who also penned the multi-layered
screenplay, starts with a novel idea--a family taking a wrong turn
on a foreign road and ending up in a strange land--and then spends
the remainder of the two hours crafting one visual and subjective
marvel that is only one-upped by the next surprise he has up his sleeve.
There are countless awe-inspiring images that are bound the stay with
audiences long after the credits have rolled, some simple, others
scrupulously complicated. Some examples: Chihiro's sprint through
the park trying to beat the setting sun, as the neon signs and red
light bulbs come alive around her; the deep, contrasting shadows that
the looming buildings and characters project; the sight of the foreign,
brightly-lit buildings standing ominously across the river; a visually
overloaded race through a field of pastel-colored flowers; the disturbing
confrontations Chihiro has with Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), an evil sorceress
who transforms herself into a bird at night and flies away; Chihiro's
train ride across the flooded alternate world, its landscapes stark
yet stunningly tranquil; a ferocious white dragon dripping blood from
its sharp teeth who Chihiro is positive is really Haku; and a looming,
gluttonous mound of mud inching its way across the bridge and toward
the bathhous! e, in the midst of a torrential downpour.
Were there nothing to say about "Spirited Away" other than talk of
its stunning visuals, the film would be an example of gorgeous style
trying to compensate for a lack of substance. Luckily, this is far
from the truth. "Spirited Away" is inventive and it is almost ruminative
in the quieter scenes where Chihiro is left alone with her thoughts.
At its core is the touching story of a 10-year-old girl coming of
age--not by any conventional means, but through the responsibility
and internal strength she gains from her fantastic, frightening experiences.
When the conclusion arrives, you sense that Chihiro has not only made
a journey through a fantasy land, but gone on a more personal trek
of self-discovery that has left her somehow wiser than her cheerfully
clueless parents could ever hope to be.
"Spirited Away" is one of the true brilliant cinematic achievements
of the new millennium. As an animated feature, there are no cute and
cuddly sidekick characters, no musical numbers, and a favored reliance
of creativity and nuances over simplistic, predictable plotlines.
Discarding the youngest of children (who will be horrified beyond
belief at its more intense and graphic images), "Spirited Away" has
the rare power to inspire, delight, and open the minds of viewers
of all ages. With this triumph, Hayao Miyazaki has managed to transcend
the usual barriers of animation to make a movie that is drawn and
colored, yes, but is never less than as convincing as live-action.
"Spirited Away" is an exquisitely formed, flawlessly executed masterwork.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman