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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Simplicity and Spectacle
by Betty Jo Tucker

Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki claims he created Spirited Away for the people who used to be ten years old and the people who are going to be ten years old. In keeping with that goal, Miyazaki’s latest dazzling animated feature depicts the fantastic adventures of Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl who finds herself trapped in a kind of hot springs bathhouse for spirits. While not as visually awesome as his Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away may be more appealing to youngsters -- and will probably enchant most of them with its simplicity and spectacle. Still, some toddlers might be disturbed by a few of the film’s scary images.

Kudos to Miyazaki for developing this story around a strong female character. "I do not like weak female characters," declares the renowned writer/director. "I think, in a sense, that things have become boring with so many strong males being held up to us as heroes. . . Our story is one in which the natural strengths of the character are revealed by the situations she encounters."

Chihiro, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, meets a variety of unusual creatures as she struggles to become reunited with her family. Haku, a friend and ally, intrigues her with his ability to change into a serpent-like dragon. Yubaba, the bathhouse boss, frightens Chihiro with her weird appearance (a monstrous head on a small body) and hostile attitude. Our heroine also finds Kamaji, a spidery old man who runs the furnace, intimidating at first -- despite his efforts to help her. But she is delighted (and so was I!) by assistance received from a crew of very funny soot balls. Chihiro interacts with many other strange characters, but I’ll leave them to surprise you.

Through her adventures in the spirit world, Chihiro not only learns how to use survival skills but also develops a more positive attitude about life. And that’s just what Miyazaki had in mind. "I wanted to show that people actually have these things in them that can be called on when they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances," he explains. "That is how I want my young friends to be, and I think that is also how they themselves hope to be."

According to executive producer John Lasseter (Toy Story), Miyazaki always makes movies for a reason. "He met this young girl, the daughter of a friend, and he was surprised at how apathetic she was about everything," Lasseter observes. "He noticed that this was a problem in Japan with young girls. They just didn’t care; they were bored. So, he said, ‘I want to make a movie for them.’"

Because I can remember being a bored, apathetic ten-year-old girl – long ago, of course,  I’m sure that seeing Spirited Away would have perked me up considerably. Now, many years later, this film – with its simple story and imaginative spectacle, has the same effect on me.

(English-language version released by Walt Disney Studios and rated "PG" for some scary moments.)

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