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Spirited Away (2002) – Movie Review

Spirited Away movie poster

Written by: Hayao Miyazaki; adapted into English by Cindy David Hewitt & Donald H. Hewitt
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring the Voices of: Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, Susan Egan, David Ogden Stiers

My Advice: Matinee.

Chihiro (Chase) is a bright, precocious kid whose been uprooted by a family move. Her parents (Michael Chiklis & Lauren Holly) try to console her, but she’s destined to grump for a while. However, her grumping is interrupted by her father trying to take a shortcut to their new home–and finding a road that dead ends on a narrow tunnel. Seemingly drawn through the tunnel, they make their way to a place where nothing is as it seems. Separated from her parents by a buffet accident, Chihiro finds herself in danger from a strange witch named Yubaba (Pleshette) whose head is roughly the size of a VW bug, who wants to steal Chihiro’s name. She quickly finds friends, or does she? Most mysterious is Haku (Marsden), who seems to have the run of the place to a degree–and some very strange powers. How is Chihiro going to escape Yubaba, remember her name, rescue her parents and then get home in one piece?

[ad#longpost]This is Miyazaki‘s follow-up to Princess Mononoke, which is probably the best animated film I’ve ever seen. It very quickly vaulted Miyazaki to God-Status in the Widgeman’s personal pantheon. That film really hacked me off, simply because Miramax put about as much effort into marketing it as they needed to in order to be one step up from dumping the thing direct to video. On VHS tapes. That were recycled and formerly held old episodes of Moesha. Oh, and the transfers would be pan and scan and black and white. Suffice to say, I was pissed. Now, though, Disney has stepped up and is releasing the thing stateside as “Walt Disney’s Spirited Away.” And I’m pissed again–because finally there’s marketing…and the film just doesn’t measure up.

It’s almost like Miyazaki decided to create a Japanese version of Alice in Wonderland, but couldn’t pull it off. All the surrealism is there–I mean, for God’s sake, you have little sootballs that eat multicolored stars. And a hopping lantern waving bye-bye. The film positively screams shrooms. Trouble is, Carroll gave you just enough information to be odd. He didn’t try to give you fragmented character arcs and troubling questions about the story that never get resolved–or at least if he did, he meant to do it and you never left the book feeling like it was put together by a guy who has no idea how to structure a story. That’s the case with Spirited Away. One character talks wistfully about getting out of the place where she works–and she’s kind of abandoned. Another character has a mysterious past, and the resolution feels somehow forced. And then the ending feels like Miyazaki wanted to get away with one more weird little detail that didn’t lead anywhere. Honestly, I left the cinema feeling like I’d seen all the characters and quirks and storylets that Miyazaki had left over in his notebook and then shoved them all into a film just for the hell of it.

Not to say there isn’t some merit to be had. The core story–little lost girl has to overcome adversity to save her family and get home–is fairly solid. The voices are all wonderful, especially Suzanne Pleshette as the evil Yubaba and Jason Marsden’s heroic Haku. And the animation is just as incredible as Mononoke–you could get multiple watches out of the thing just as a work of visual art alone. There are plenty of laughs as well, enough to keep you interested in what’s going on–but not enough to distract from the problems discussed above.

It’s a bloody shame that the anime film with the strongest theatrical push I can remember has to be this one. “Mainstream” audiences won’t take to something that feels this whacked out unless there are good reasons for the whacking. And odd for odd’s sake only works with audiences if they buy into that completely and don’t feel like they (and the characters) are being cheated out of their due. Personally, if you’re into psychotropic drugs, I’d love to hear how this film is on them–I’m sure it would be quite memorable. You guys can watch it anytime you want. Everyone else should catch a matinee, just to see the cool animation on the big screen. I wish I could recommend it further than that.