2001, PG, 125 min. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Voices by Rumi Hîragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Takashi Naitô, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Tatsuya Gashuin.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 11, 2002
If you haven't yet seen any of the films (among them the great Princess Mononoke and the greater My Neighbor Totoro) by Japanese animator-cum-savior of the medium Hayao Miyazaki, the sad fact of the matter is that you're missing out on the most magnificent combination of animation and storytelling (and these days the two are too often separate and unequal) since Walt Disney first put pen to paper some 80 years ago. You may think I'm spinning a cotton-candy delight out of sheer hyperbole here, but no, these days that's Disney's job. As my brother said when he caught the Spirited Away trailer: “Finally, animation with curves.” It's not just that Miyazaki's hand-drawn, cel-animation technique knocks the socks off the current state of animation affairs (CGI included), and, in an odd bit of irony, has usurped much of the rude, crude, and heavy-handed angular bluster of Japanese animation (or anime). Go rent any of the last five or so animated Disney flicks and you'll find a paucity of sleekness, a dearth of smooth, feminine lines. These days it's all angular choppery, and though the Mouse still has some of the best writers working these days, Disney's animation has begun to look like so much brightly colored pasteboard pap. Miyazaki, whose been turning out megawatt brilliance for close to 40 years in his native Japan, combines a love of the natural form with mind-bending color palettes and a “What on Earth?!” storyline that grabs your head by the moorings and shakes the dust loose in a way that most other animated outings haven't done in years. Fantastic and fantastical, his films are modern-day Brothers Grimm fairy tales rethought and reshot for the new millennium, ones that don't skimp on such traditional children's fare as loss of parents, the fear of the unknown, and self-sacrifice. Spirited Away features a young girl who becomes trapped between the real and the ghost-world, and whose parents are turned into insatiable hogs; tough stuff for anyone, but that's just the first 10 minutes. Melding bits of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz with Eastern-angled spookiness and an outré sensibility that borders on the indescribable, Spirited Away is fiercely original in every respect. Gnarled old crones, flying dragons, evil spirits, not-so-evil spirits, and giggling dust bunnies are par for the course in Miyazaki's world, and this film feels like a crash course in both the unlimited possibilities of unfettered imagination and classic kids' storytelling gone wonderfully overboard. Kids will love this film, adults will love this film -- possibly the only folks who won't like it will be those poor Disney animators (whose parent company, it should be noted, has bought American distribution rights to both this and all of Miyazaki's previous work), who will see it and weep and laugh at the same time thinking of all the time they've wasted toeing the Mousey line. Genius and nothing but -- that's what Miyazaki means.