Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Spirited Away

Grade : A+ Year : 2001 Director : Hayao Miyazaki Running Time : 2hr 5min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

If last year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar race was a photo-finish between two thoroughbreds (winner “Shrek” from Dreamworks and runner-up “Monsters Inc.” from Disney/Pixar), this year, the field is wide-open and primed for a surprise. If I had to guess, the winner this year would probably be the CG-animated “Ice Age” from Fox (the year’s biggest animated hit thus far), with Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch” and Dreamworks’ “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” not far behind.

The problem there is this: while I don’t know about “Jonah: A Veggietales Movie,” will likely pass up Nickelodeon’s “The Wild Thornberrys Movie,” and am eagerly hoping Disney’s upcoming “Treasure Planet” fails to disappoint like “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and “Titan A.E.” did, if “Ice Age,” “Lilo & Stitch,” and “Spirit” take up the three spots in the category as I expect them to, that leaves no room for Anime, or Japanese Animated features. Start with “Metropolis,” the acclaimed Anime stunner from director Rintaro (“X-The Movie”) and writer Katsuhiro Otomo (“Akira”) about a futuristic city torn apart by mankind and machinery. It was out for a short time in Atlanta and elsewhere around the country for Anime buffs to check out before hitting DVD. It’s still one of the very best, most visionary films of the year.

That brings us to “Spirited Away,” the second Anime to receive a high profile limited release this year. It’s the work of animation god Hayao Miyazaki, the writer-director of this and many of highly-acclaimed and influential works, including the wonderful coming-of-age story “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and the exciting fantasy “Princess Mononoke” (well worth the look if you haven’t seen it yet; ditto “Kiki’s” if you happen to see it in the TV guide on Disney). It also comes with some baggage to make it highly anticipated among cineastes and animation buffs. It’s the first animated film ever to take home the Best Picture award at the prestigeous Berlin Film Festival, it’s the first film to ever make $200 million before hitting U.S. theatres, and it displanted “Titanic” as the highest grossing film in Japanese domestic box-office history (btw, “Titanic” displanted “Princess Mononoke” as #1 when it was released).

All of this baggage? Well deserved. “Spirited Away”- not to be confused with Dreamworks’ animated Western “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” or the probable Madonna debacle “Swept Away”- is a remarkable experience, full of beautifully-elegant animation, rich fantastic elements, more terrific music by “Kiki” and “Mononoke” composer Joe Hisaishi, and highly personal feeling. It’s the best Anime I’ve seen, one of the best animated films I’ve seen, one of the greatest of all films, and certainly one of my favorites. What you see on the screen- this IS movie magic, from a real cinematic magician, and a most passionate artist, with few peers in the field of animation (Pixar’s John Lasseter and Walt Disney himself are the only ones whom come to mind).

Thematically, “Spirited Away” shares a little bit with both “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Princess Mononoke.” From “Kiki’s,” you get the whimsical nature of the fantasy and coming-of-age nature of the tale of discovery inner strength and worth; from “Mononoke,” the sense of love overcoming adversity and the mythical, mystical aspects of the fantasy. And yet, “Spirited Away”- in content and execution, and like it’s predecessors- is jaw-droppingly original in it’s own right. If I had one complaint about the film, it’s that the film- which clock in at 2-hours plus- seems to drag at times. But it’s a minor quibble; I felt the same about “Lord of the Rings” the first time, but the more I watched, the smoother it moved.

“Spirited Away” tells the story of Chihiro (voiced for the English language release by Daveigh Chase from “Lilo & Stitch”), a young girl travelling with her parents to a new town, new school, new home. She’s not happy about it, and it won’t get any easier. When they stop and check out an abandoned theme park, the weirdness begins. Her parents become pigs- literally- by eating some unattended food, and Chihiro is plunged into a fantasy world of spirits and mystical creatures centered around a bathhouse run by Yubaba, who gives Chihiro a job so long as she gives Yubaba her name on a contract. She tries to navigate through this world- and return to the human world- through the guidance of a young man named Haku, who may or may not be trustworthy.

I could go into more detail, but why ruin the experience of seeing it for yourself. And I hope you get the chance. Disney’s only put “Spirited Away” in a handful of theatres around the country- 2 in Atlanta- thus far, but one hopes their plan is to build word-of-mouth before expanding it’s release further. When that happens, check theatre listings, and try to find a couple of hours to make the trip. Anyone skeptical about seeing an animated movie in theatres, without a child present? Not to be blunt, but get over it. Miyazaki- a master of humane fantasy- knows that the only way animation can be successful is to inspire awe in both young and old. And given the chance, he will. Plus, Miyazaki’s films- with the exception of “Kiki’s Delivery Service”- aren’t G-rated adventures; “Mononoke” was PG-13, “Spirited Away” is PG, and rightfully so. “Spirited Away” is perhaps a bit too intense and scary for the youngest children, but anyone over 8-10 should find it enthralling. In today’s “been there, seen that” world of blockbuster cinema and special effects, it takes real imagination to impress cineastes jaded by loud, repetitive effects and worlds, and audiences in general.

And yet somehow, there are those possessed with such imagination and passion capable of works of real visionary power. Of modern filmmakers, I’m thinking of Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings”), George Lucas (“Star Wars”), Steven Spielberg (“A.I.”), James Cameron (“The Abyss”), Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), and in the world of animation, John Lasseter (“Toy Story”), who executive produced the American release of “Spirited Away” for Disney. All have astounded me time and again with their loving touches and crafting of sights unseen. Miyazaki is no different. The train that rides along the surface of the water. The dragon spirit Haku changes into. The black soot critters that assist the six-armed Kamaji (voice by Disney regular David Ogden Stiers) in keeping the furnace going in the bowels of the bathhouse. The sludge spirit that comes in for a bath, revealing himself as a river spirit with a bone to pick with those who pollute the water. The spirits that inhabit this ghost world in general, including the ambiguous No-Face, which turns out to be a surprising friend to Chihiro. All are images I won’t soon forget. But like any great artist, Miyazaki- who draws every single frame of his movies by hand (no CG-flourishes like most recent Disney productions), giving his films an unmistakably personal touch not seen often in Anime or animation in general- knows that a vision is only as strong as the story it supports. That he develops and writes the scripts himself is a big plus. He infuses heart, complexity, and intelligence into every story, and his main characters are no different. Chihiro is in for an adventure that requires resourcefulness, brains, and wit if she’s to return to the human world and to her family.

Trust me on this- it’s an adventure worth surrendering yourself to.

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