Spirited Away Movie Review
Spirited Away begins with the young Chihiro reluctantly accompanying her family as they explore a deserted amusement park. The girl's parents are seduced by a feast set up in one of the park's food stands and eventually turn into pigs. At sunset Chihiro is transported into an alternate phantom universe filled with lumbering radish men, the shrill and controlling witch Yubaba (voiced by Suzanne Pleshette in her finest performance since Oh God, Book II), and a trio of bouncing, disembodied heads. Looking for a way to free her parents and find a way home keeps Chihiro exploring this world long enough to uncover enough strange and amazing creatures to keep us glued to the screen for the duration.
The conflict of the film is much more complex than many viewers may expect from a mere "cartoon." While Yubaba is the most distasteful character in the film, there is no true villain. The world of Spirited Away is populated by a menagerie of quirky characters, each with their own set of motivations and desires. At times, these forces conflict with Chihiro quest, but at other times she lives in harmony with the denizens of the bathhouse. Miyasaki's unwillingness to reduce the narrative to a simple battle of good and evil makes his cartoon characters much more human than what Hollywood offers on a regular basis.
Fans of darker, nihilistic anime fare may find the wide-eyed optimism of Spirited Away a bit hard to swallow. Almost every moment is bursting with wonder. Miyasaki's sense of extra-terrestrial whimsy provides a nice counterbalance to this optimism, making viewers scratch their heads at the likes of a Stink Spirit before sending them looking for their handkerchief. As a result, Spirited Away succeeds at being incredibly poignant without ever falling victim to sentimentality. If you're looking for buxom cyborg assassins kicking the crap out of buxom alien invaders, look somewhere else.
It almost goes without saying that the animation is jaw dropping. Miyazaki is arguably the greatest living creator of the (mostly) hand-drawn animated film. Eye candy adorns inch of Yubaba's gaudy bathhouse, from its dizzyingly ornate facade to the Rube Goldberg boiler room that heats the bath water. Miyazaki is not afraid to let the amazing hand-drawn scenery to linger on the screen to allow us get lost in his skies and oceans. Simply put, it is unlikely that you will see another film this visually impressive for a long time.
As grand prize winner at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival and Japan's box office champion, Spirited Away has a unique pedigree of intense critical and commercial success. But despite the film's notable achievements, and Miyazaki's status in the world of animation, Spirited Away may be the director's last chance to bring his unique vision and abundant talent to an American audience. After this country's lukewarm reception of his last film, Princess Mononoke --and the success of CGI animation that has the major studios minting coins with Shrek's face on them -- it may be concluded that hand-animated films are deep into an ice age from which they may never recover. Spirited Away offers more than a glimmer of hope.
Aka Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi .
Disney releases the 2002 Best Animated Film Oscar-winner to DVD in a two-disc set this it comprehensive yet lacking in many truly interesting extras. The bonus material largely consists of commentaries about Miyazaki by Disney staffers and various historians, with only a glimmer of a look at the actual making of the film. Interesting stuff, but the movie stands on its own.