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Spirited Away

Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Starring Daveigh Chase, David Ogden Stiers, and Lauren Holly

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Because of his immense popularity in his home country, Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) is often compared to Walt Disney — a compliment, one might suppose, if the comparisons apply to the work pioneered by Disney in the '40s and '50s. But while Disney was a visionary, he was mainly a figurehead, dictating his desires to an army of artists and writers who created films at his command. Miyazaki, by comparison, actually writes and designs and directs his films himself; and they are, arguably, much better films that anything ever turned out by the Mouse Factory.

Such could be attributed, perhaps, to the Japanese appreciation for animation as a major art form — what many Americans dismiss as mere entertainment for the kiddies is considered an artistic medium worthy of considerable respect and admiration in Japan. At the forefront of modern Japanese animation is Studio Ghibli — formed in 1985 to produce Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky, the studio has developed a reputation for creating some of the finest animation in the world. Studio Ghibli has influenced Western animators with their classics-to-be like Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro, as well as the celebrated Grave of the Fireflies. But the studio gained the attention of most American audiences with the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature that was presented to Miyazaki's Spirited Away.

Miyazaki's film tells a simple story with the convoluted dream-logic of a child. The foundation of the story is one Miyazaki's favorite themes, that of a young child on the brink of adolescence dislocated from her home and family, having to find strength within herself to complete a quest. Here, it's Chihiro (voiced in the English language version by Daveigh Chase), who's been uprooted by her parents to a new neighborhood. Peeved about leaving her friends and old school behind, Chihiro is further annoyed when her father gets lost on the way to the family's new home and they end up in what Chihiro's parents believe is an abandoned theme park — a temple, empty shops, and a vacant restaurant. When the adults stop to help themselves to the offerings at the suspiciously unattended food kiosk, Chihiro wanders around the "theme park," bumping into a spirit who warns her to leave before sundown; when she returns to her parents, however, Chihiro finds that they've been turned into pigs.

In order to get her parents back, Chihiro must make her way through a bizarre and frightening new world. A boy with magic powers, Haku (Jason Marsden), takes her under his wing and helps her get a job so that she — a stinky, unwanted "human" — can stay in this world and rescue her folks. But she soon learns that Haku is second-in-command to the greedy witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), who runs the bath house where Chihiro now works, tending to the needs of any number of strange, frightening and/or comical spirits who make up Yubaba's customers. As she works hard, solves the various problems that are presented to her, and slowly figures out how to save her porcine parents, Chihiro's whiny childishness disappears and she becomes a stronger, more complete person in the process.

*          *          *

At it's essence, Spirited Away is a film about identity. Chihiro is re-christened by Yubaba when she's hired on at the bath house, her name taken from her to ensure her loyalty — but Haku warns her to never forget her real name or she'll lose her identity forever. Haku should know, because he isn't what he seems — he's really a dragon, a "water spirit" who has forgotten his own name, so he's unable to return home. A mysterious spirit who follows and helps Chihiro turns out to be a menace to the bath house — until Chihiro realizes that he's just unhappy, and helps find him a home. And the sort-of evil Yubaba (none of the characters are really 100% good or evil, a striking difference from American animation) has a kindly identical twin sister who treats Chihiro with such kindness that the girl ends up calling her Grandma.

Pixar's John Lasseter acted as executive producer of the English-language version, and it's hard to tell how much he may have glossed over in the translation to a U.S.-friendly film. The spirits who frequent the bath house are so odd and so precise — hopping birds and frog-guys and floaty fellows in Kabuki masks and even a Radish Spirit — that one gets the sense that these characters probably make complete sense to non-Western audiences. It feels like we're missing the reference somehow. But it's also possible to experience the film through the eyes of Chihiro as she gamely attempts to fit in and get along — it's a fairy tale, for heaven's sake, and are Radish Spirits really any weirder than a cat wearing boots or a giant that smells the blood of Englishmen?

Above all else, this slightly surreal tale is being told by Miyazaki, widely considered to be the greatest animator working today. Having reportedly retired after Princess Mononoke, he was inspired to return to animation when he met the young girl who inspired the character of Chihiro (thankfully, he's currently developing yet another film, based on Diana Wynn Jones' book "Howl's Moving Castle"). In an obvious homage to Alice in Wonderland, Chihiro enters her adventure down a rabbit hole — well, through a tunnel, actually, but the effect is much the same. Miyazaki's combination of beautifully painted backgrounds, hand-drawn cels, and computer animation fully realizes the potential of big-screen animation — everything from weather (clouds blowing, blades of grass swaying, Haku in dragon form whipping along on the wind) to Chihiro's flight as she's pulled off her feet and yanked, inches off the ground, through the length of Yubaba's chambers, is stunningly realized. And when one of the characters is turned into a hamster (which is far too complicated to explain here), the creature is so funny that it elicits laughs every time it's on the screen.

During its two-hour length, Spirited Away contains more characters, ideas, laughs, thrills, and story elements than the last four Disney films combined — which is another area where comparison between Miyazaki and the products of the Mouse House falls apart. The third act of Spirited occasionally drags (just a tiny bit), but it still keeps the viewer wondering what will happen around the next corner — right at the same time that most Disney films devolve into predictable chase scenes, sappy song-and-dance numbers, and teary reunions. Never boring and never predictable, Spirited Away is already on its way to classic status, standing as an important achievement in the art of animation and — far more importantly — a damn entertaining flick.

*          *          *

Buena Vista's DVD release of Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away is truly beautiful to look at with a pristine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) . Colors are rich and vibrant, with an almost palpable warmth throughout (corrections have been made since release of an earlier Region 2 DVD which had an overwhelmingly red tint). The English-language audio is crystal clear in Dolby Digital 5.1; also included are the original Japanese language track in DD 5.1 and a French track in Dolby 2.0 Surround.

Disc One starts with Pixar's John Lasseter lecturing how lucky you are to be able to see Spirited Away and shows himself throwing an arm around his good friend Hayao Miyazaki (who looks as if he'd rather be talking to someone else); in addition to the film, there's the featurette "The Art of Spirited Away," a 15-minute, Disney-produced item with soundbites from Miyazaki, Lasseter, Chase, and various writers, animators, and execs — wade through the drivel and there's some fun info here, mostly from Miyazaki, who seems like he'd be a hoot to hang out with. Disc Two offers the featurette "Behind the Microphone" (5 min.) focusing on the voice talent for the English language version; the 40-minute featurette "The Making of Spirited Away," a terrific behind-the-scenes special made for Nippon Television (presented with English subtitles); a storyboard-to-screen comparison of the first ten minutes of the film (accessible using the "angle" button on your remote); and the original Japanese theatrical trailers.

— Dawn Taylor

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