Spirited Away is the miraculous new creation from Miyazaki, the Japanese animator who last gave us Princess Mononoke . Both Spirited Away and Mononoke were distributed in the western world by Walt Disney Studios, who have also–and quite effectively, I think–dubbed the films from Japanese into English. The distribution contract between Miyazaki’s Ghibli Studios in Japan and Disney carefully stipulated that the American studio was otherwise not allowed to change one frame of the legendary Miyazakai’s work. Whether or not Disney would have otherwise been tempted to "Americanize" the film by making cuts or changes is hard to say. But we are infinitely richer for being able to see Spirited Away in its complete, unadulterated splendor, and Disney’s decision to give the film a nation-wide release opens an exciting new space for animated films on mid-American movie screens.
Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is notable for being a great kids movie that is also great art. It belongs in a special category of movies designed for children that truly feel inhabited by a child’s point of view. Spirited Away ‘s hero is a plucky eight-year-old girl named Sen who tumbles through the looking glass when her parents’ car detours into an abandoned amusement park en route to their new home in the suburbs. When Sen’s parents are turned to swine, after gorging themselves on a feast meant for gods, Sen must fend for herself among a gathering horde of ghosts and monsters. After dark, you see, the abandoned amusement park serves as a bath-house for the spirit world. Rallying an assortment of creatures, ranging from living balls of soot, to dragons, to shape-shifting goblins, Sen fights to return to the world of human kind and to restore her mother and father to human form.
But no plot description can do justice to the visual wonders Miyazakai brings to the screen. Reportedly, Miyazaki’s animation is a complex layering of handpainted foregrounds with computer animated backgrounds. The overall effect is wonderfully rich. Tersely-sketched human faces combine with elaborately painted phantasmagoria to give us a world where the real is constantly toppling into the imaginary. Many scenes are utterly transfixing, the stuff of ultra-vivid dreams. I am thinking in particular of Sen’s ghostly train ride through a watery landscape near the end of the film, as well as the hallucinatory spread of dusk over the empty amusement park at the beginning.
Which brings me to my last point. Spirited Away has actually been around for several months. Disney has timed its re-release to coincide with its recent Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and the deluxe 2-disc DVD will be available on the 15th of this month. While I am certain Spirited Away will play well on your home video equipment, and should be seen in any case, I urge you to try and catch it in the theaters before it leaves. It is a twilight movie, a dream movie; it is best seen in darkness and on a big screen.
You can find this review, along with other reviews of past and current films, theater, and opera, on our website, at wfiu.indiana.edu. In the meantime, this is Jonathan Haynes, reviewing movies for WFIU.