Spirited Away

A Film Review By Michael Haley

Rating:Rated PG for some scary (yet wonderful) moments
Starring: Stars the voice talents of Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Lauren Holly, Susan Egan, Jason Marsden, John Ratzenberger, and David Odgen Stiers (thy David Ogden Stiers!!)
Directed By:Hayao Miyazaki

Final Grade:

A couple years back, Disney released Miyazaki’s great Princess Mononoke on American soil, and just about everyone who saw it loved it. But for some reason no one decided to tell their friends, and the film went largely unnoticed (although it was extremely popular in Japan, and has developed a small cult following in the States). Flash forward to the present, where Pixar guru John Lassetter comes up with the idea of releasing Miyazaki’s latest film in the States, fore he (as well as many Disney animators) often cite Miyazaki’s work as their source of inspiration. Trouble is, Disney isn’t putting the film out on that many screens (while Sweet Crap I Mean Home Alabama is stinking up our theatres) and therefore this movie is already starting to assume a similar fate as Mononoke. My mission as your not so humble film critic is not to let that happen, because Spirited Away is a masterpiece, with no equal.

The film opens with Chihiro, who is moving to a new home with her family. She’s none too happy about moving and slightly cynical; noting that the only time she got a bouquet was when she was leaving. The car makes a wrong turn, and the family finds themselves before a strange tunnel. They enter despite Chihiro’s objections, and find themselves in an abandoned amusement park. The parents notice free food lying out in the middle of the open, and begin to gorge themselves. Chihiro wonders around a bit, and finds that as the night sets in, spirits begin to emerge and strange sights pop up all around. She runs back to her parents to find they have literally turned into pigs still slobbering over the food, and she is taken by a mysterious boy named Haku, who may or may not be on her side. It would be criminal to reveal more…the film runs in the vein of Alice in Wonderland and must be discovered by oneself.

On the story level, there’s a lot to admire in the film. One notices right away that this isn’t your typical Hollywood fare (it shouldn’t be, it was produced in Japan) and therefore is free to move in whatever direction it chooses. I’m not saying for a second that the film is shapeless, I’m saying that at no point was I sitting in my seat going, “Now that’s going to happen, than she’s going to do this…” because the story is completely original and constantly inventive. These characters are drawn (figuratively) simple enough for children to understand, but there’s plenty for adults to admire here as well. The act of the parents turning into pigs says everything that’s needed about their characters, without having to waste time explaining, “Well, it’s because they were greedy…” Chihiro doesn’t behave like an idiot protagonist, but as a bright, intelligent girl who’s initially frightened by this strange new world before her (as anyone would be) but uses her wits and determination to make her way through it. I especially liked the early scenes with her, as they show her as a girl who’s somewhat detached from her parents, as if her moral character is constantly being tested by the choices her elders make. It’s these morals that will get her through this new world, which Miyazaki explores while never shoving a message or moral down our throats. The characters of the spirit world are every bit as compelling, from the spider armed Kamajji to the witch’s big fat baby who just wants someone to play with him (or else!)

However, this isn’t just a good story, but an exhilarating experience. I cannot think of a live action film I’ve seen for some time that ever gave me the sense that it was truly alive; that the images were not fabrications but real. This film not only does that but does so with animated drawings, and Miyazaki creates an entire living, breathing world before your very eyes. As with Princess Mononoke, I not only forgot I was watching animation but also forgot I was watching a film, and only when the credits start rolling did I stop and think, “That was a movie?” Miyazaki often draws thousands of frames for his films by hand, and often animates small things like water flowing or commotion in the background that further envelop you into his world. And the creatures of the film are all drawn with their own unique look, feel, and feeling…if one was to remove the plot, voices and such, the film would be a four star film based merely upon its visuals.

However, despite all the good stuff, there are plenty of negatives…no, just kidding, there are none! Everything here is beyond good, so much so that the film’s weakest moments could be considered other movie’s shining high points. The score is touching and beautiful, and works to give the images such a heightened sense of awe that is truly extraordinary. The dubbing is virtually flawless, and even there are a few slight moments where the lips don’t quite synch a few times, you simply won’t care. The voices match every character well, and I have to give credit to Daveigh Chase (Chihiro), who manages to give her character a perfect sense of innocence yet maturity. Keep on an eye on this girl. She provided her voice for this film as well as Lilo and Stitch, as well as effectively portray the evil child in The Ring. This girl has got star potential.

Miyazaki said once that he made this film for those who were once ten, and for those who will be. That couldn’t be a more accurate description. Watching this film takes one back to that age, not in a gimmicky way, but simply by evoking the feelings and emotions going through oneself at that point. Yet it also makes one feel alive, feel great, while remaining pure cinema. This is the perfect family film, date film, old geezer film, chick flick, guy flick, kid flick, etc. Having seen it twice, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Even though the year still has two months left, I’m willing to bet that this one will be the best film of the year, although that remains to be seen. However, I can safely say now that it is one of the very best films ever made and that there is no excuse not to see it, no matter what age group you are, what kind of movies you like or whatever, because after all, we’re all ten year olds at heart. This movie should be treasured.

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