Spirited Away

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 09/20/02 00:27:25

"Just Give It The Oscar Now!"
5 stars (Awesome)

When the category for Best Animated Film was introduced into last year’s Oscar program, in theory I thought it’s a nice idea, but ultimately proves to be a rather futile exercise since you only get three nominees out of maybe a possible dozen contenders. Why not just introduce categories for every genre? If comedies or adventures or animation can’t compete seriously amongst the close-minded epic-tranced victims of Miramax campaigns, then what’s the point of honoring “the best?” Only 13 animated pictures are slated for release in 2002 (or have been already), but you can lock up the lone film that deserves the award and it’s called “Spirited Away”

Already the highest grossing film in the history of Japan (higher than even “Titanic,) Walt Disney snatched up the U.S. distribution for this eagerly awaited surprise from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. If you’re one of the unlucky millions to have never seen one of his films, then immediately start with this one and then plunder the video stores for the rest of his resume. His last project, before rashly announcing his retirement from the game, was Princess Mononoke, which came stateside two years after its original release in 1997 to unanimous praise but a weak box office return thanks to the bungled efforts of Miramax.

Mononoke was an elaborate adventure about the disruption of nature during a war between feudal Japan and the gods of the forest. Audiences didn’t respond to the complexity of last year’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within either suggesting it’s the subject matter and not the imagery they failed to embrace. If Disney handles this right, then Spirited Away is going to change that. Not only is the story more kid-friendly but is likely to open the eyes and imagination of all ages unfamiliar with what they’ve been missing out on.

Chihiro (voice dubbed by Daveigh Chase, who also voiced Lilo in Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch”) is on her way to a new town and a new school with her parents. Despite their reassurance, she’s frightened as to what this new world has in store for her. Along the way, their car takes a wrong turn to an abandoned theme park where Chihiro’s childhood fears only increase when her parents are turned into pigs. Turns out they’ve wandered into an alternate dimension that serves as a “health spa for the Gods” and Chihiro must embark on an adventure to get them back.

Plot takes a backseat to a series of setpieces along Chihiro’s journey into an accelerated progress to adulthood. She is befriended by Haku, a young warrior who helps her hide from the spirits whose relationship with humans is typified by the smell of fear similar to the creatures in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. Her only hope is to make a place for herself amongst the beings by adamantly getting a job and subsequently learning valuable lessons in self-reliance, sacrifice, support of others and integrity. Don’t you wish more films had such an education for today’s children?

Writing about a film like Spirited Away isn’t about regurgitating information out for those who know little about it, but more of an experience in reminiscing. It’s an absolute delight to go back in my head and recall the various creatures and their surroundings like the giant baby and the three disembodied head servants or the brilliant setpieces including the soot creatures and their six-legged master and the showstopping bath of the Stench God. But who wants to read about it when you can discover it for yourself, for this is a film that depends on the audience’s wonder of revelation and demands that you tap into the parts of your imagination that may have lay dormant for years. Children will hopefully be the ones to take the most away from this experience though, opening their minds to a new world of animation that also includes Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, but also a new heroine for young girls to look towards.

Spirited Away is certainly not a traditional animated piece in terms of good guys and bad guys or an official objective to accomplish, but the anti-Pokemon for children looking to bring their daydreams to life. This is family entertainment at its best; a fresh take on Alice In Wonderland that is, at length, far more moving and breathtaking, full of laughter, memorable characters and creatures as well as a surprise for the senses at every turn. Don’t let this film slip away because with a little public support at the box office, the Academy may sit up and take notice that they don’t need a Best Animated Film category because Spirited Away is good enough for the grand prize.

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