Spirited Away (Japan 2001)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 2/1/03
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

A fascinating and enchanting tale of love, courage, and wonder that went on to become the highest grossing film in Japanese history (shortly after Miyazaki's previous film, "Mononoke Hime" (1997) did the same thing). Chihiro is a ten year old girl whose family is moving to a new town. She's naturally upset about having to leave her school and friends behind, and wants nothing to do with the whole thing. But five minutes into the film, her parents start acting VERY strange. After taking a detour, they end up in an increasingly other worldly place, and only Chihiro sees the danger they're in. (her dad is laughably convinced that they're in an abandoned amusement park) Seduced by the magical aura of the place, her parents turn into pigs and Chihiro is trapped in the spirit world. A kind boy named Haku helps her to survive, and Chihiro finally manages to get a job at the bath house of the gods. Many adventures follow as she desperately tries to free herself and save her parents, and many friendships are forged along the way.

As you would expect from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the animation is exquisite, and there is some startling computer animation thrown in to good effect. Sinister, but never outright menacing, it might be a tad too intense for younger viewers. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it, which kids wouldn't even pick up on. (quite possible, since little kids absolutely love "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988), which I found downright terrifying at times). Miyazaki's familiar themes of independent, strong-willed girls finding the strength, courage, and love to overcome any obstacle ring clear in this film, although I still found it inferior to his other works like "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989), "Laputa" (1986), and "Nausicaä" (1984). Disney received a sound thrashing by American audiences for promoting the film so poorly during its domestic release, even after receiving universally ecstatic reviews. And when are they going to get off their butts and release the rest of Miyazaki's library, which they've been sitting on for years?!?