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Spirited Away By Matt Singer
Spirited Away, the hugely successful Japanese film by Hayao Miyazaki, was rewarded for its surprise win for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars with a rerelease into theaters, just weeks before it was scheduled to be released on DVD. Clearly word had gotten out about the film, because the showing I caught was surprisingly crowded, with an audience of adults and children. Its creators must have done something right; the smaller children in the audience were unusually well-behaved, apparently wrapped up in the amazing, beautiful film they were watching. This is a movie that seems ready to entertain nearly any audience. Children old enough not to be afraid of some of the scares in the film will be dazzled and transported, and adults young enough at heart to remember what it was like to feel that way about a movie will do the same.
Our heroine is named Chihiro. She is voiced in the English language version by Daveigh Chase, a talented twelve year old girl who also played the the lead in last year’s adorable Lilo & Stitch. Much to her chagrin, Chihiro’s family is moving to a new town and school, and along the way, they stop to explore a tunnel they come to along the road. The timid Chihiro keeps imploring her parents to turn back, but they are having too much fun exploring the strange sights (Chihiro’s dad, played by Michael Chiklis, thinks he’s found an abandoned amusement park). Soon, Chihiro is separated from her parents and off on an adventure in a bathhouse for spirits, filled with bizarre, sometimes scary, sometimes adorable, characters.
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The best reason to see Spirited Away, and there are quite a few good ones, is to witness the vision of director Miyazaki, whose name is becoming so synonymous with high-quality animated films that he’s now received in-the-title status - the full title on the poster reads Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. While so many films, animated or otherwise, suffer from a dearth of good ideas, Spirited Away has enough interesting concepts, stories, characters, visuals, and unforgettable shots for a year’s worth of movies. In any other movie, characters like the cute little soot monsters would be required to contribute some vital element to the plot. Here they are allowed to provide comic relief, and add rich, warm detail to the film. There is a joy in seeing a movie linger and ramble when it has something to share with you. Ninety minutes is the standard animated feature running time; Spirited Away is a hearty 125 minutes.
I must confess here that I have seen Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, which already received a loud critical response, but after the buildup, I was left somewhat underwhelmed; despite the director’s trademark imaginative visuals. It might also be worth mentioning that I am also not a fan of most anime, though that could be attributed more to the films I have seen than to my overall opinion of the genre. And yet, I loved Spirited Away. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the sort of games I would play as a child, where the adults were all gone and only I could save the planet (interestingly, this line of thinking has me identifying with a female heroine).
The title refers to Chihiro’s transportation to another world, and to the dizzying experience of watching this film. With such craziness in the world, a movie that can transport you and dazzle you in this way is truly an escape, and escapism of such high quality deserves to be treasured. If Hollywood movies are candy, Spirited Away is like a really good apple; delicious and extremely good for you.