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Dustin's Review
Spirited Away (2002)
4 Stars

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Voices: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Takashi Naito, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Bunta Sugawara, Takehiko Ono, Tsunehiko Kamijo
2002 – 124 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for some scary moments).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 28, 2002.

Special Note: "Spirited Away," distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, has been released in the U.S. as an English-dubbed version with the voice talents of Daveigh Chase, James Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, Lauren Holly, Michael Chicklis, David Ogden Stiers, and John Ratzenberger. For some sort of unknown, "Twilight Zone"-style reason, the theater I saw it in (Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7 in Arlington, VA) projected the original Japanese-voiced, English-subtitled version. Therefore, I cannot comment on the dubbed voices or anything else that might pertain exclusively to the American edition.

"Spirited Away," the latest animated gem from visionary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (1999's "Princess Mononoke"), has gone on to become the top-grossing feature in Japan's history (surpassing 1997's "Titanic"), and is the only movie ever to be released in the U.S. after already earning $200-million worldwide. How much money a film racks up is not a measurement of quality, to be sure, but when something like "Titanic" or "Spirited Away" takes the world by storm in such a prosperous way, there has to be a valid reason.

The answer? As sheerly imaginative and groundbreakingly wondrous as any animated motion picture you are sure to have seen, to date, Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" has been widely described as a cross between "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland." I would wager to also throw in "The Neverending Story." It would also be fair to wager that, as much as there is a resemblance, "Spirited Away" has a genuine, one-of-a-kind voice—and a beautiful lyricism not seen in American animation—all its own. To see "Spirited Away" is to indulge in a 124-minute cavalcade of breathtaking images, colorfully precise animation, well-drawn characters, and an invention in fresh storytelling that has to be seen to be completely understood.

The film begins as sulky 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents are on their way to move to the suburbs. After taking a wrong turn on the road, they come upon a black tunnel that leads them to what the father guesses is a closed-down theme park. "They were popular back in the early 1990's," he says. When her parents make the wrong decision to feast on a table of fresh food they have come upon, Chihiro finds herself alone outside of the human world and in a kind of alternate universe where spirits rule. Chihiro makes a friend in Haku (Miyu Irino), a young warrior boy who suggests she bide her time waiting to return home by getting a job at a far-from-ordinary bathhouse. As Chihiro quickly learns, nothing is ordinary in a world overrun by witches, monsters, and transparent spirits.

To say much more about the story of "Spirited Away" would do a disservice to Hayao Miyazaki's remarkable work, which has been lovingly crafted in such a way that its many cinematic treats are meant to be discovered on the viewer's own. Director Miyazaki, who also penned the multi-layered screenplay, starts with a novel idea—a family taking a wrong turn on a foreign road and ending up in a strange land—and then spends the remainder of the two hours crafting one visual and subjective marvel that is only one-upped by the next surprise he has up his sleeve.

There are countless awe-inspiring images that are bound the stay with audiences long after the credits have rolled, some simple, others scrupulously complicated. Some examples: Chihiro's sprint through the park trying to beat the setting sun, as the neon signs and red light bulbs come alive around her; the deep, contrasting shadows that the looming buildings and characters project; the sight of the foreign, brightly-lit buildings standing ominously across the river; a visually overloaded race through a field of pastel-colored flowers; the disturbing confrontations Chihiro has with Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), an evil sorceress who transforms herself into a bird at night and flies away; Chihiro's train ride across the flooded alternate world, its landscapes stark yet stunningly tranquil; a ferocious white dragon dripping blood from its sharp teeth who Chihiro is positive is really Haku; and a looming, gluttonous mound of mud inching its way across the bridge and toward the bathhouse, in the midst of a torrential downpour.

Were there nothing to say about "Spirited Away" other than talk of its stunning visuals, the film would be an example of gorgeous style trying to compensate for a lack of substance. Luckily, this is far from the truth. "Spirited Away" is inventive and it is almost ruminative in the quieter scenes where Chihiro is left alone with her thoughts. At its core is the touching story of a 10-year-old girl coming of age—not by any conventional means, but through the responsibility and internal strength she gains from her fantastic, frightening experiences. When the conclusion arrives, you sense that Chihiro has not only made a journey through a fantasy land, but gone on a more personal trek of self-discovery that has left her somehow wiser than her cheerfully clueless parents could ever hope to be.

"Spirited Away" is one of the true brilliant cinematic achievements of the new millennium. As an animated feature, there are no cute and cuddly sidekick characters, no musical numbers, and a favored reliance of creativity and nuances over simplistic, predictable plotlines. Discarding the youngest of children (who will be horrified beyond belief at its more intense and graphic images), "Spirited Away" has the rare power to inspire, delight, and open the minds of viewers of all ages. With this triumph, Hayao Miyazaki has managed to transcend the usual barriers of animation to make a movie that is drawn and colored, yes, but is never less than as convincing as live-action. "Spirited Away" is an exquisitely formed, flawlessly executed masterwork.

©2002 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman