(Movie Review Written 10/02)
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, who also voiced Lilo in Disney's "Lilo and Stitch"), 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 breathtaking films for years to come.
Note: This is a family film, but it may be scary for some 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.
VIDEO: "Spirited Away" is presented by Disney in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Thankfully, care has been taken in the transfer, and as a result, the presentation looks nothing short of fantastic. The image remains impressively sharp and well-defined throughout; all of the smaller tidbits in each of the amazingly detailed frames are clearly visible.
The slightest bit of edge enhancement was the only thing that took away from the presentation, but it was hardly noticable. No compression artifacts were spotted, and the print was absolutely free of any flaws. The film's beautiful, vivid color palette also never showed any signs of bleeding or other concerns.
The film's stunning color palette is rendered beautifully here, appearing well-saturated and rich. Black level also remained solid throughout. There were concerns about this edition after an Asian DVD release of the film suffered from a very irritating red tint. Thankfully, this release does not have the same problem.
SOUND: Disney has included both the original Japanese soundtrack and English dubbed track - both are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 (a French 2.0 track is also provided). When it was released theatrically, some theaters carried the Japanese version, some theaters carried the English dubbed version, and some had one screen for each. While the original language version is prefered, the English dubbing is pretty good, too.
Both tracks handle the material quite wonderfully; this is not a particularly aggressive soundtrack in the traditional sense, but surrounds will still get a very enjoyable workout throughout the feature. The rear speakers do handle a moderate amount of ambience, the occasional more noticable sound effect and reinforcement of the score.
EXTRAS: The first disc of the movie includes a 15-minute "Art of Spirited Away" featurette, which offers interviews with Miyazaki, John Lasseter and other members of the English translation crew and voice cast. Also found on the first disc is an intro from Lasseter and previews for other Miyazaki titles (on 4/15, a 3-Pack with "Spirited Away", "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Castle in the Sky" will be available).
Moving to the second disc, viewers will find no less than 28 minutes of Japanese trailers for the film. It's very interesting to see how the film was marketed to Japanese audiences. The second disc's main supplement is a "Nippon Television Special", a 40-minute documentary that visits with master animator Miyazaki as he embarks on the adventure of making "Spirited Away". It's quite fascinating to be able to watch the animators at work, see their work environment, and gain a better understanding of the process. We also see other aspects of the production, such as voice recording and work on the film's score.
Rounding out the second disc are storyboard-to-scene comparisons (11 minutes worth) and a short featurette about the voice talent providing the English dub.
Final Thoughts: "Spirited Away" won the Best Animated Feature at the Oscar this year, over animated films that grossed nearly $100m or made even more. It absolutely deserved the honor - the film is a true classic and remains the most breathtaking animated film I've ever seen. Disney's DVD offers a respectable amount of supplements, along with excellent audio/video quality. "Spirited Away" is a truly amazing work that must be experienced. A complete and total recommendation for a true classic.