Spirited Away (2002) - DVD Review
By Widge - posted 04.25.03 @ 2:37 am
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki; adapted into English by Cindy David Hewitt & Donald H. Hewitt
Released by: Buena Vista Home Video
My Advice: Rent it.
Even on this side of the film winning the Oscar for Best Animated Flick, my review of the film still stands. Miyazaki, who's more than proven himself a storyteller and animator of the highest order, has in this instance received the most acclaim for his weakest work. The key trouble is that the film wants it both ways. It wants to be written by the Japanese version of Lewis Carroll, but it also can't commit to the sheer over-the-top absurdity and incoherence that that entails. Instead, what comes out the other side is a film that wants to have character arcs for more than just its protagonist, but fails miserably. And all of the neat imagery (which is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, make no mistake) and cool surreal ideas just seem like stuff Miyazaki culled from the cutting room floor in his head. Like I said, there's very little to it, despite the fact that Miyazaki can create a ten-year-old animated girl who feels just as real as any you might know in our world.
That being said, on the DVD side of things, it appears that Disney is finally figuring out that perhaps anime can deserve some features. And no, I won't stop complaining about their treatment of Princess Mononoke, so don't bother asking. They do a little bit towards redeeming themselves, though it is a bit of a drop in the ocean.
First, you get John Lasseter (yes, the Pixar guy), introducing the film--which is cute, but insubstantial. Understandable, though, since Lasseter's respect for Miyazaki is evident. If you had had the chance, wouldn't you have stuck an intro on your hero's film? Sure thing. There's also a brief documentary on the first disc, The Art of Spirited Away, hosted by actor Marsden, that talks with the English vocal cast amongst others. There's also many at Disney discussing Miyazaki and his impact and how they are inspired. Very interesting is Lasseter talking about how they'll show a Miyazaki flick at the Pixar screening room whenever they're having a widespread case of creator's block. It's very family friendly, however, and almost grates--but manages to avoid it. Very amusing is the fact that the two writers working on the English translation had no idea originally that the "seal" that exists as a prop in the film was a seal (as in something that you use to seal a document) as opposed to a seal (as in an animal that can be trained to balance a ball on its nose). It obviously all came out all right, but--well, they're not Neil Gaiman, are they?
Second disc you get a short (less than six minute) featurette about the fun involved in dubbing a film like this, the ADR work that can be taxing, even for established vocal veterans. Only some smoke-blowing is involved, so it's quite watchable and also informative. The "Select Storyboard-to-Scene Comparison" has a bit of a misleading title, for it is neither select, nor a comparison. It's pretty much just the first ten minutes of the film told with storyboards. Don't get me wrong, Miyazaki's storyboard work is pretty fascinating to watch, but because of what this feature is called, I kept trying to hit the angle button on my remote, thinking I was missing some split screen version of it.
Probably the most interesting thing on the second disc is the television special from Japan--it runs over forty minutes in length--and takes you through the making of the film. This is a welcome addition, because we've all seen what American animation houses look and work like, but probably most of us animation fans haven't seen the Japanese version of things. You get the looming deadlines with Miyazaki and his crew hammering away, the cameraderie that develops out of that, the recording sessions with the Japanese voice talent, and so forth. Some highlights include: Miyazaki's turn to cook dinner for himself and his animation staff and his demonstration of how a character should prance about whilst singing. One thing that I didn't understand, however, was why they had chosen to record with all the crew and the voice talent in the same room--they joked about how Miyazaki's stomach growling could ruin a take, but--isn't that precisely why you have people in sound proof booths? It's not even a stylistic difference in productions, they were talking about how they had done it this way for the first time...I don't know.
Lastly you get the original Japanese trailers. Now, these are interesting strictly from a perspective of trying to see what animation trailers are like in Japan, but that's for the first five minutes--and you get almost a half-hour of various trailers. You would have to be hardcore indeed to be able to get through all of them in a single sitting.
While I am pleased that Disney is released this film (and other Miyazaki flicks) with decent special editions, I can't help but be a little disappointed at what had to have been left out. For example: Mononoke, in Japan, had a six-VHS tape set of the movie and bonus features. Spirited Away is even more highly regarded than Mononoke, so imagine all the stuff we're not seeing. Granted, maybe it's a rights issue to use the material (thought I doubt it), or maybe it's the fear that to do an Uber-Edition just wouldn't sell...I don't know. But I'm hoping that at some point, we'll get a massive re-release of Miyazaki with everything that's available. Or at least I'll get a two-disc Mononoke. That would tide me over for now.
Fans of Miyazaki or the film will probably want to own this disc, but for myself, again, due to the quality of the story involved, I would have to leave it as a rental.