by Ken B.
One word: Wow.
Oh, I guess I should elaborate on that a bit.
Spirited Away is an absolutely remarkable piece of cinema, and one of the most passionate arguments available for the overwhelming potency and power of animation when done right. This is my first genuine exposure to Hayao Miyazaki, and it is definitely encouraging enough for me to want to further explore his filmography. It’s hard to describe this movie, both in its specifics and its impact. The best way to understand Spirited Away is to simply watch it, a move I promise you will not regret.
The film opens with Chihiro (voice of Daveigh Chase), an apathetic ten year old girl who sulks silently in the car as her mother (voice of Lauren Holly) and father (voice of Michael Chiklis) navigate to the family’s new home. When Chihiro’s father misses an exit, he drives onto a bumpy dirt road leading through a forest, believing that it will lead them to their destination. Instead they find a large tunnel, whose walls are made out of plaster. On the other side, an open field, with an odd looking town in the distance. The initial assumption is that this is some long-abandoned amusement park, but soon the smell of food is detected, leading them into the town and to a fully stocked outdoor restaurant. While her parents carelessly dig in, Chihiro is more suspicious, and wanders off to explore the surroundings. During this time, night falls, and the town lights up and comes to life – but that’s where the trouble begins.
Chihiro’s parents have been turned into pigs, seemingly for no reason at all. A glowing ferry comes from a suddenly filled river, and the occupants – strange, indescribable creatures – proceed to the large bath house, only part of a colorful, bizarre, and dangerous world that Chihiro has somehow entered. A boy named Haku (voice of Jason Marsden), informs her that in order to find answers, she must get a job working for the six-armed operator of the boiler room (voice of David Ogden Stiers). This becomes a gateway to the rest of this spectacular fantasy universe, filled with a wide array of inhabitants and events that must be seen to be understood (or at least comprehended in the most minimal sense).
Spirited Away is a visual masterpiece – the animation, at every turn, is crisp, clear, and flowing. From the simple movement of a car to thousands of paper insects flying through an open window, each animated frame of the 124 minute film is a painting in its own right. You savor each sight in its massive power, and how it serves the story – a fantasy in its most literal sense, but in reality closer to precisely measured allegory, touching on everything from to environmentalism to the importance of family to the danger of greed. Spirited Away manages to move across many different settings and subjects without ever feeling rushed. The pacing is remarkable.
But enough with the technicalities. Tens of thousands of words have been devoted to Spirited Away’s animation and visual quirks over the years, and if you’re stumbling across this review online, you’ve likely read about it, or have seen it anyway. But thirteen years after the film’s initial release, there’s a little more in terms of perspective that can be discussed. Spirited Away is ubiquitous with the best of animation. It’s already a certifiable classic in many circles. There are few films that hold onto its audience in quite the same way this one does. You, as a viewer, are always on board with the crazy twists and turns and revelations in store. It’s unusually easy to embrace the kind of seemingly random weirdness. A review once compared Spirited Away to an emulation of the dream state – when you’re dreaming, everything makes sense, even when it doesn’t. Think about it: This is a world where characters change shape, form, and species, a world where there are evil twins, a world where a witch (voice of Suzanne Pleshette) turns humans into pigs, a world where a ghost-like figure makes gold to entice others and swallows them up when they get too close. For all intents and purposes, this is a movie that should have been incomprehensible. But it isn’t. It’s immediately endearing and fully functional, and on this first viewing, I must admit that I still can’t fully grasp just how it works in that respect, but I am exceedingly glad that it does.
Spirited Away is recommended viewing for kids around the age of its main character, and those of us who have sadly aged past that point in childhood will still find plenty to admire. This is a fully fleshed out and stunning movie. Miyazaki’s script is fantastic, the animation is breathtaking, and the English dub, supervised by Pixar veteran John Lasseter, works without intruding upon the original product. Each element comes together and works quite well with each other. It’s a display that inspires the imagination. What a wonderful movie.
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