Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4
As "Pinocchio" takes aim at liars, so "Spirited Away" raises its
sights on greed and its first cousin, gluttony. Hayao Miyazaki,
the world's foremost genius of animation and the guiding spirit of
"My Neighbor Totoro," "Kiki's Delivery Service," and "Princess
Mononoke," now delivers to us an example of anime that is far
removed from the naivete of the early Woody Woodpecker, Bugs
Bunny and Mickey Mouse pics. Without so much as a
character's getting blown up or getting knocked on the head,
"Spirited Away" is a soulful in its content as it is avant-garde in
style, in its own, restrained way running rings around such recent
favorites as "Shrek" and "Jimmy Neutron." The movie is all the
more amazing in its technique when we read that Miyazaki is no
great friend of computers and had his staff knock out thousands of
drawings by hand.
In some theaters, including Loews E-Walk in New York,
prospective viewers have the choice of seeing the movie in normal
film projection or in digital. The digital version is flawlessly
dubbed into English, but I noted several Japanese Americans at
the digital, dubbed version, probably not realizing that one that
would have more meaning to them was right next door, in the
Japanese language with English subtitles.
Why should the anime have at least a bit more relevance to a
Japanese-American group? Probably because the Japanese
culture has a history of believing in a form of animism,
appropriately enough for an anime movie, wherein objects in
nature such as rivers, trees and animals have souls. In the story,
Chihiro (voice of Daveigh Chase), a ten-year-old girl in virtually
every scene who gets to come of age a few years before the usual
American movie leads, grows up by having a woodlands adventure
separate from her parents. At first she is a clinging vine,
rebellious to a fault, miserable and cranky at being moved by
them to a new neighborhood; still another bit of evidence that the
young are more conservative than their parents. She's afraid of
her shadow, opposed to her parents self-defined sense of
adventure. When her folks go through a tunnel that separates the
human world from the spiritual one, they pig out at a well-stocked,
empty restaurant and are turned into pigs. What Miyazaki is
getting at here and in several other sectors of his creation, is that
our inner selves are truer than our outer facades.
Guided by a handsome lad named Haku (Jason Marsden), who
serves as her guardian angel and insists that he has known her
since she was a little girl, she encounters magical creatures,
some evil like a scrofulous gaffer of a witch named Yubaba (voice
of Suzanne Pleshette), who has the ability to turn her workers into
coal. On a luckier note she communicates now and then with a
fellow wearing a modified "Scream" mask who can say only "uh"
and who can create gold by simply opening his hand.
If the most amusing fella here is Kamaji (voice of David Ogden
Stiers), who has eight arms, all of which are used to run a boiler-
room operation, the most allegorical if we consider that the writer-
director is a conservationist is Okutaresama, the spirit of the river,
who is smelly and filthy and needs a good, hot Japanese bath.
We get the message.
Chihiro is one cartoon character we get to care for. With an
ample supply of facial expressions showing her every emotional
tic, she is lovable, all the more interesting since she has given up
her whining and her hiding behind her mother's skirts. Parents
who take their kids to this film might want to point this out: the
little ones will innocently pretend they don't get the message.
Copyright © 2002 Harvey Karten