Spirited Away

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/15/07 22:25:31

"Meh. I repeat: it's just a big fat meh."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

So I find myself in the strange, defensive position of being one of only eight people on the globe to not like “Spirited Away.” The film, from acclaimed Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service”), has been trumpeted as something of an instant masterpiece since its release. And no, I didn’t care for it too much.

Well, OK, I liked parts of it, sure, but more often than not, I found myself bored, and, in the end, it’s not a film I’d recommend to anyone but hardcore anime fans. While there’s plenty to admire here, it’s hardly the triumph general consensus has hailed it to be.

The story seems as simple as any fairy tale. Ten-year-old girl Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase in the American dubbed edition - don’t worry, the DVD thankfully offers the original, better Japanese track as well) is upset that her family is moving to a new town. Along the way, her dad gets the car lost in the woods, and soon they stumble upon what seems to be an abandoned amusement park. Despite Chihiro’s warnings, her parents quickly scarf down some food they find conveniently sitting out - and are soon turned to pigs as the price for their gluttony.

Chihiro, understandably freaked out, becomes more confused when she realizes she’s suddenly in some sort of Wonderland/Oz/Wonka Factory dream world filled with bizarre creatures and strange beings. It turns out to be - no kidding - a bath house for weary spirits and gods, and soon Chihiro finds herself having to work, the latest slave hired by the cruel, giant-headed mistress Yubaba.

Up to this point, the film’s not too bad. While Chihiro’s a fairly annoying character, and the “bath house slaves” premise is a bit too creepy in a kiddie prostitution kind of way, there is an odd charm at work, thanks to an explosion of imagination that’s quite elegant. There are creatures here unlike anything I’ve ever seen, indescribable monsters and otherworldly beings that express a total absence on creative limitation.

But the story hits a wall. The plot becomes as freeform as the characters, and we’re treated to a series of (occasionally confusing, rarely entertaining) episodes in which our heroine explores this strange new world. There’s stuff about, among other things, a giant baby, a mischievous spirit named No Face, and a “stink spirit,” which wasn’t very interesting the first time I saw it, in “Dogma.” None of this makes much sense, but it’s not really supposed to; it’s all so “dreamlike” and such. But it’s not very interesting. The funny parts aren’t funny, the thrilling parts don’t thrill. For this entire middle section of the movie, I’d say an entire hour, I found myself bored. Utterly, totally bored.

The story picks up in the final fifteen minutes or so, when the screenplay awakens from its slumber and gets rolling again, with a finale that’s quite stirring. Where was this energy before? I started to think the movie might have been far more effective had the middle hour been given a solid trim. The opening and closing scenes have plenty of “wow” moments, but there’s not a single minute of the middle section that stuck in my mind, or even made me care if the power stayed on long enough for me to see the next scene.

Ultimately, “Spirited Away” is a movie that’s often great to look at, but not that much fun to watch, if that makes sense. The animation is lively (aside from a few distractingly broad slapstick moments, typical to the anime style, that make the film look like nothing more than an elaborate “Pokémon” episode), and Miyazaki - who not only wrote and directed, but drew a good chunk of the animation himself as well - once again shows he’s a master of visual imagery. But this means nothing if the story doesn’t connect. The ideas shown here would make a nifty picture book, but tying the random creations together without a workable plotline causes the audience to lose interest.

So yes, “Spirited Away” is a triumph of imagination, but it’s also a failure of storytelling.

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