Spirited Away (Japan, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

To animators across the world, Hayao Miyazaki is a god. Within the animation community, his work is revered, and fans of “anime” (Japanese animation) await each new Miyazaki film with the same degree of ill-concealed impatience as displayed by 11-year olds hungering for the next book in the “Harry Potter” series. In mainstream United States movie-going circles, Miyazaki is not a well-known name, which is one reason why, several years ago, Walt Disney Pictures purchased the North American rights to Miyazaki’s catalog. While there were some gripes about the manner in which the dubbing and distribution of Miyazaki’s previous feature, Princess Mononoke, were handled here, more care has been taken for Spirited Away. Two American animation luminaries – Pixar’s John Lasseter and Disney’s Kirk Wise (the director of several animated features, including Beauty and the Beast) – were recruited to convert the Japanese version of the movie into one for English-speaking audiences.

Let me state up front that I am neither a fan of, nor an expert on, anime. In fact, I’m not a lover of animation in general. But I know when I’m in the presence of good storytelling, and Spirited Away represents that. Watching this movie, you immediately become aware of two things – the animation is excellent (something that will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen one of Miyazaki’s previous outings) and the story turns in unusual, often unexpected directions. One of the biggest problems I have with many animated films (even the best ones) is plot predictability. That’s not the case here.

Spirited Away takes influences from “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz” and uses them to fashion a highly original story about a 10 year-old girl, Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase), who, along with her parents, ventures through a tunnel that leads to the world of spirits. After a witch, Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), turns Mom and Dad into pigs, Chihiro must find a niche in the spirit world, where humans are not well thought-of, and figure out a way to convince Yubaba to change her parents back into humans and send them all home. With help from Haku (Jason Marsden), Yubaba’s boy apprentice, and Lin (Susan Egan), a “big sister” type, Chihiro gets a job at Yubaba’s bathhouse for sprits, and there her quest to aid her family begins. But, as complications arise, she finds additional tasks to perform and other allies willing to help her.

The nature of the story is tailor-made for animation. Many of the characters engage in shape-shifting (boys become dragons, adults become pigs, a giant baby becomes a bloated mouse) and the bathhouse is frequented by a variety of strange and unusual creatures. While a few of the inhabitants of the sprit world look human, most appear to be anything but that. Take the boiler operator Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers), for example. At first glance, he’s just a cranky old man with a frizzy beard. Then we notice that he has eight legs and walks like a spider. We also find out that he’s not as intimidating as he looks. His initially surly disposition melts away and he becomes of one Chihiro’s numerous friends.

Miyazaki is an environmentalist, and his films often contain strong pro-environment messages. (This was a cornerstone to Princess Mononoke.) In Spirited Away, one of the visitors to the bathhouse is a river spirit who has been so badly polluted by sludge and other waste materials that his stench drives people away and he is in need of a powerful cleansing to sluice away the filth. It takes an effort, but he is eventually restored to his former glory.

The film’s animation is stunning, with richly-detailed backgrounds and flawless foregrounds. Unlike many animators, Miyazaki still relies almost exclusively upon hand-drawn artwork (although he employs some computer technology to touch up and enhance the final product), and his meticulous care shows. The colors are bright and vivid, and some of the scenes (especially those taking place during a rainstorm) are peerless in the world of motion picture animation. Also, with a running length that exceeds two hours (124 minutes), Spirited Away requires approximately 40% more cells than what is needed for the average Disney release.

Miyazaki does not dumb down Spirited Away, even though his stated target audience is children. This is a true family film, in that adults will be as enchanted by the characters and situations as children will. The pace is a little slower than the average animated film – there is not as much frantic action – but not so languid that younger viewers will become restless. The dubbing into English is very good (as is voice selection), so there is no subtitle barrier. Overall, while Spirited Away may not be as complex and imaginative as Princess Mononoke in some areas, it is as beautifully rendered and no less sophisticated in its outlook. Miyazaki has provided another triumph, and, in the midst of the quality fall-off of Disney’s in-house animated projects, a reason for animation-lovers to rejoice.

Spirited Away (Japan, 2001)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: (voices) Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, Michael Chiklis, Susan Egan, Lauren Holly, John Ratzenberger, David Ogden Stiers
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Music: Jo Hisaishi
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2002
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2002-09-20
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1