I've mentioned in the past that computer animation seems to be surpassing traditional animation both in detail and in popularity. After that, I watch a Hayao Miyazaki film and all that gets largely thrown out the window: as sharp and smooth as many of the computer animated films have been, I still have not seen one that amazes me as much as Miyazaki's features, whose animation almost seems impossibly rich and incredibly imaginative. Like "Princess Mononoke" before it, "Spirited Away" is the work of a truly brilliant artist at the height of his talents.
After "Princess Mononoke"'s release was called into question by fans, Disney is handling the release of "Spirited Away" differently. Pixar's John Lasseter ("Toy Story") and Disney's Kirk Wise ("Beauty and the Beast"), two animators who are reportedly big fans of Miyazaki, have been called in to handle the dubbing and other elements of the film's US release. Yet, there are also screens showing the original, sub-titled version of the feature - as some theaters are showing one version on one screen and the other on another, be sure that you buy a ticket for the one that you prefer to view. I'd also guess that many viewers of this film will likely come back for a second viewing, possibly for the other version.
The film itself is somewhat like "The Wizard Of Oz", but throws in so many of its own plot twists, unusual fantasy elements and other unexpected material that the film constantly keeps the viewer involved and guessing what'll happen next. The film revolves around Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase), a 10-year-old who is depressed at the fact her family is moving to a new city where she'll have to start over again. On the way there, they stop off at a small tunnel that creeps out Chihiro, but interests her folks.
After walking through, the three find themselves in the midst of a spirit world. Although Chihiro still wants to leave, her hungry parents feast themselves on food left out while Chihiro explores. When she returns, her parents have been turned into pigs by a witch named Yubaba, who manages a bathhouse for spirits who need to be cleansed. To save her parents, Chihiro must get a job in the bathhouse, while also convincing the spirits - who don't like humans - that she is necessary. While there, she enlists the help of Haku (Jason Marsden), a half-boy/half-dragon spirit who does Yubaba's work. Her allies also include a fellow who runs the boiler room at the bathhouse and an older girl named Lin, who watches a formerly spoiled Chihiro turn into a brave and good-hearted girl. Rather than going a whole lot deeper into the film's plot and ruining more of the surprises (there are a lot more here, this is an absolutely PACKED two hours), I think I'll go further into what I liked.
This is a film that is certainly a lot of different things. There are scenes that are noticably either a bit scary or disturbing, while there are scenes that are dramatic. There are a few scenes that have a dramatic element and an almost roll-in-the-aisles hilarious element put together in the same scene wonderfully. There are a handful of little soot puffs that live in the boiler room who scatter about with pieces of coal that they throw into the fire. These characters, with their expressive little eyes, have some of the funniest bits of any film I've seen this year. A duo composed of a little insect/bird and fat hamster (formerly a fat baby) that follow Chihiro (renamed Sen by Yubaba) during the last stretch of her journey are also utterly laugh-out-loud funny, too. Action/fantasy/comedy/drama/horror are all pulled together into one truly amazing whole. While I ended up seeing the dubbed version, the dubbing at least felt right and I think the Lasseter/Wise team has done a great job. Above it all though is Hayao Miyazaki and his team's animation, which is incredible beyond words. Whatever your thoughts are on animation (or more specifically, Japanese animation) or whether you're young or old, go see this film. It's as simple as that. "Mononoke" is a classic and "Spirited Away" sees the utter genius of Miyazaki continue. I can only hope that he continues to make these incredible films.
Note: This is a family film, but it will not go over well with many very young kids. At the showing I was at, there were a whole lot of kids of various ages. Kids who were under 6-7 were generally either confused or scared or both (some of the kids had to step out to be calmed down by the parents) by aspects of the picture, while some of the older kids 8-9+ seemed to be very entertained. Early teens who have never seen Miyazaki's animation will likely be dazzled, being used to formulaic and less detailed animated fare. This is absolutely not a kids' only picture, either. Adults of any age should definitely see this film and will likely be greatly impressed by both the storytelling and the animation.