What I love about Spirited Away is what I loved about its predecessor, Princess Mononoke. Director Hayao Miyazaki’s two most recent animated features are both original and exotic. Neither has been homogenized by Disney, and both feature places and creatures and spirits that you have never seen before.
Japanese for Alice
PG for Scary moments
Spirited Away has elements of Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s about a modern-day girl, Chihiro (voiced in English by Daveigh Chase), who gets lost in an amazing and dangerous fantasy world.
At the center of this world is a bath house where flesh-and-blood creatures serve spirit-world customers. In this place humans are loathed, but Chihiro is allowed to stay in the relative safety of the bath house once she gets a job.
But Chihiro doesn’t want to stay forever. She only wants to stay long enough to rescue her parents who were turned into pigs when they ate a spirit-world banquet.
As in Alice in Wonderland, the heroine is one of the least interesting characters. The secondary characters are fanciful and original. The man in charge of the boiler has six arms and two legs. His helpers are enchanted balls of soot that carry coal into the furnace.
Miyazaki doesn’t shy away from bad spirits, ugly spirits, or menacing spirits. As a stink spirit approaches the bath house, shopkeepers close up, bath attendants run and hide, and food rots in the bowl. Still another spirit lures bath house attendants with gifts, then eats them whole.
Better than Dreams
The animation style is a little choppy at times. It is not perfectly smooth, but that’s part of its appeal. It hasn’t all been computerized. It leaves plenty of room for human craftsmanship. The colors, textures, and settings are impressively beautiful, and the overall effect is mystical and magical, familiar and dreamlike.
The dreaminess is captured in the image of the entire land flooded, but shallowly. A lonely train, which only goes in one direction, chugs down the tracks, even when the tracks are flooded in ten inches of water. The image is, like a dream, mundane, strange, sad and beautiful.
If Spirited Away is any better than Princess Mononoke, it is only because anticipation will sweeten the experience. If it is worse, it is because it is more childish and simple. For example, the ending wraps itself up neatly, where Mononoke’s ending spirals up and away into something mythic and sublime, like the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
If you haven’t seen non-Disney, non-Pixar animation before, by all means go see Spirited Away. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by a world filled with friendly, mean, disgusting, beautiful, and amazing creatures that you’ve never seen before in your life.