Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for some Scary Moments
(Japanese with English subtitles)
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki
Voices of: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Bunta Sugawara, Yumi Tamai & Tsunehiko Kamijo
I have friends who sing the praises of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, but I haven’t really indulged in these films. As I’m slowly dipping my eyeballs into more anime, I’ve now seen HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE and SPIRITED AWAY. Though I wasn’t a big fan of MOVING CASTLE, SPIRITED AWAY is whimsical, imaginative, and compelling fantasy adventure executed with an incredibly unique vision. Even though the plot isn’t exactly free of minor hiccups, vibrant animation and sheer creativity are enough to outweigh any potential problems one might have with the storyline.
Chihiro Ogino is a ten-year-old girl in the process of moving to a new town with her parents. She’s understandably upset about the change in location, while her folks seem excited for a fresh start. On the way to their new home, Chihiro’s father decides to take a scenic route and comes across a strange gateway. Taking the wisdom of your average slasher movie victim in account, Chihiro’s parents journey into a creepy abandoned town…and wind up on the wrong end of a supernatural curse that transforms them into pigs. Chihiro soon finds herself immersed in a strange world where spirits, witches, monsters, and dragons exist…and humans are on the menu. If she wishes to save her parents from a gruesome fate and keep herself alive, Chihiro will have to muster lots of courage and use her wits to conquer an array of supernatural threats.
The first quality that immediately sticks out in SPIRITED AWAY is the animation. The weird world that Chihiro finds herself in is a wild, over-the-top and just plain odd place. The film’s visuals are crafted from computer animation that was masterfully made to imitate Miyazaki’s own hand-drawn characters. If someone had told me this film was traditional animation, I would have believed them without a moment’s hesitation. This movie is simply beautiful to look at, even though Miyazaki specifically tried to lessen the “eye candy” for a more personal fantasy tale. Despite his best efforts, SPIRITED AWAY still contains tons of eye candy in its assortment of creatures and environments, ranging from comical to bizarrely sinister.
SPIRITED AWAY’s original script would have filled three hours, which led to many scenes being excised for the sake of time. Unsurprisingly, the resulting two-hour running time flies thanks to a plethora of plotlines (almost vignettes) contained within the film. SPIRITED AWAY has enough plot for five features. The main storyline follows a familiar set-up of a little girl trying to rescue her parents and an otherworldly adventure, complete with the inner workings of a supernatural bathhouse. The main antagonist has a sibling rivalry of sorts, that comes into play later on. Sadly, a would-be romance feels forced and comes off as the film’s only weak link (you can tell that scenes were cut from this plotline). There’s even a horror-ish storyline about a strange monster thrown in for good measure, which is easily the film’s biggest highlight for me.
I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly recap on how awesome this movie’s characters are. Chihiro comes off as an annoying child at first and then gradually matures through her various storylines. Think Jennifer Connelly’s protagonist in LABYRINTH, except with better character development and a more believable (though just as fantastical) story arc. Haku, a watchful protector over Chihiro and her forced love interest, has his moments, though I think most of his character development was left on the cutting room floor (save for two brief conversations). Bulbous-headed witch Yubaba makes for an interesting villainess, simultaneously receiving great bits of comic relief throughout. Two other notable highlights are Kamaji, a spider-like furnace worker, and the mysterious No-Face (my favorite part of the entire film).
I don’t have any nostalgia for SPIRITED AWAY, Miyazaki, or Studio Ghibli, so I’m approaching this film strictly as a newcomer. Though I feel Haku’s romantic storyline is forced and unneeded, I loved SPIRITED AWAY as a whole. The film’s narrative stumbles are more than made up for by the sheer amounts of charm, creativity and imagination on display. This movie is great for numerous reasons. The characters are unforgettable. The plot contains good old-fashioned morals for kids told in unique ways that are sure to entertain teens and adults. The more I think about this film, the more I love it. SPIRITED AWAY definitely stands as one of the best animated films from the 2000’s and has me interested to check out more Studio Ghibli films down the line.