Animation, Adventure, Family, 125 minutes
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring the voices of Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette and David Ogden Stiers (US dub)
My Neighbor Totoro is my favorite Hayao Miyazaki film most days, but Spirited Away is on the same level. It's the best animated film ever to win an Oscar.
So what elevates it from other great animation such as Pixar? It's a combination of many things.
Miyazaki's animation feels different to anything else that I've experienced. It's detailed and complex, with well-developed characters, and it has heart. He creates lovable characters, but some have human flaws and they are more real than characters found in most animated fare.
Spirited Away tells the story of a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro (Chase). Her parents are driving her to their new home and she's upset about leaving her friends behind. In fact, she's bratty and whines a lot. Her father drives down the wrong road and they end up in an abandoned amusement park. Although it's deserted, they can smell food. Chihiro's parents decide to take advantage of a free meal, but Chihiro doesn't. She's horrified to see them transform into pigs.
While she is deciding what to do, a boy named Haku (Marsden) shows up and urges her to leave before it gets dark. She refuses to leave her parents so he decides to help her. Darkness brings a few changes and spirits appear. An area which appeared to be deserted is suddenly alive with light and chatter. Haku explains to Chihiro that she will never be allowed to leave unless she earns her place in the town. To do so, she must seek employment at the bath house.
The bath house is run by Yubaba (Pleshette) and she's a formidable witch. But, with the help of Kamaji (Stiers), who takes care of the boiler, Chihiro is given a chance to find a job. She's assigned to Lin, who shows her what to do. Lin also tries to toughen Chihiro up and teach her to improve her sullen attitude and learn some manners. Spirited Away is a coming-of-age story in which Chihiro eventually becomes a happy, confident girl, capable of facing anything.
The story is vast and quite complex for an animated film. Miyazaki doesn't rush things and takes a little over two hours to show Chihiro's story. It's aimed at an older audience than films such as Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro, but it contains some of the beauty and innocence that's present in all Studio Ghibli films.
Miyazaki's imagination is almost limitless. You'll meet witches, soot sprites, dragons, spirits, weird animals and a giant baby. I've sometimes heard people complain that they don't understand the story. If you just accept it as a fantasy where magic exists, it's really pretty easy to follow.
The style of animation may be different from anything that you are used to. The image is two-dimensional and each frame looks like a watercolor painting. But take note of the amount of detail present in each frame. Some of it doesn't need to be there for the story to work, but it's a richer experience because it is present. When Chihiro nervously edges down a steep flight of stairs, look at the detail in the individual steps. When she puts her shoes on, there's a very human gesture that most animators wouldn't bother with. Spirited Away is clearly a labor of love and a work of art.
If you give the film a try, you might find yourself hooked after about two minutes as I was. The look of the film and Joe Hisaishi's score set a mood immediately and draw you in. It's a slightly darker and more dangerous world than many Studio Ghibli settings, but you'll be reluctant to leave.
If you like Spirited Away:
I would confidently recommend all of Hayao Miyazaki's films, but Spirited Away is aimed at an older audience than some. I would suggest Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service for fans of Spirited Away. If you like those, why not check out all of Studio Ghibli's offerings? Its weakest films are still better than all but the very best animated titles.
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