Spirited Away (2001)

Posted by on Dec 10, 2011 in The Best of the Best | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Some of the spirits and creatures may scare younger viewers.

After completing Princess Mononoke in 1997, renowned animator Hayao Miyazaki planned to retire. But when he saw a friend’s heartbroken 10-year-old daughter, he found inspiration and headed back to the drawing board – literally. The result is Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s greatest accomplishment and winner of more than 30 awards, including the Oscar for best animated film (the first animé feature to do so) and top prize at Berlin Film Festival (the first animated film to do so). Before opening in America, Spirited Away grossed more than $200 million (unseating Titanic for all-time box office receipts in Japan), and is the highest grossing non-American film worldwide. But more important than awards or box office results, Miyazaki’s masterpiece is one of the greatest children’s films ever made and at more than two hours running time, you’ll be surprised to find it fly by so quickly, leaving you clamoring and longing for more.

Miyazaki’s signature formula usually involves a female protagonist stranded in a fantastical land to battle various evils with help from a young male character. In this case, we follow young Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) as she begins the difficult transition to a new town and school with her parents (Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis). On the way, they encounter a seemingly deserted theme park, where Chihiro’s parents “pig out” and are punished accordingly. This leaves Chihiro on her own in a town inhabited by strange spirits. She earns her keep at a gigantic bathhouse run by Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), a mean-spirited witch who steals the identities of her employees and cares only for her gigantic infant son. Chihiro gets by with the help of Haku (Jason Marsden), Yubaba’s henchman, who can transform into a dragon on command and whose sole mission is to retrieve a powerful seal from Yubaba’s twin sister Zaneba.

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Most critics have compared Spirited Away to Alice in Wonderland, and that carries some merit as they both isolate a young stranger in the strangest of lands. This one, however, hosts giant frogs, a multi-armed boiler man (David Ogden Stiers) and his peeping specks of soot, a huge radish, a bulimic spirit called No-Face, and many, many more. All of these fascinating creatures dislike Chihiro, and all humans for that matter, because they are lazy, smelly, and greedy. But while Miyazaki shows us dozens of new creatures, some good and some bad, none seem to be quite as evil as humans. One part of the story is Chihiro’s adventure to resolve the situation with her captured parents, but more importantly it’s about her journey from a whiney, apathetic, spoiled girl to a hard-working, emotionally seasoned young woman as she learns lessons of friendship and love.

Some of the magical and fantastical elements will seem foreign since Miyazaki takes many of them from Asian folklore, but that sense of something new sucks us in further as our sense of wonder and curiosity overwhelm us until we, too, become a part of this mystical world. In a medium that often churns out the same contrived plots and characters, Miyazaki brings originality to the forefront, and for good reason – he doesn’t watch films or TV. Yet, his animated movies have natural, painterly beauty with landscapes similar to Ansel Adams’ photographs and elements of whimsical fantasy like Rene Magritté or Salvador Dali.

More than any other Miyazaki film to date, Spirited Away takes its time in unfolding a rather complicated plot. This allows for small, intimate details that make the film more endearing, exciting, and even humorous. In one of my favorite scenes, Chihiro squashes a black slug with her foot, which the boiler man tells her is bad luck. He then removes the bad luck with a simple hand motion that will seem extremely odd to most American viewers. Following this small display, a baby mouse reenacts the happening for the magical specks of soot (who load the boilers with coal) followed by a roaring round of applause. In any other movie it would be a throwaway sequence, but it adds an excellent belly laugh and breaks up the action for a moment before we’re excitedly thrown right back into one of the most memorable cinematic spaces in the history of the movies.

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