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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Along with Ghosts
by Adam Hakari

You don't know how relieved I am that film culture hasn't become tired of Hayao Miyazaki. I've read more than enough thinkpieces about how audiences have grown fatigued with this genre or that, with so many words written about cinema's supposedly imminent downfall and what seems to be comparatively few celebrating its accomplishments. But while cynicism can oftentimes feel like the rule, Miyazaki's animated treasures are an exception, with viewers closely studying even his lesser works for the subtle character beats and intricate visual details contained therein. You can debate for ages about what the master's "best" production is, but as far as the world's stage is concerned,  Spirited Away (2001) is his crowning achievement. Winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar and at one point the most successful movie in Japanese history, this film is among the most vibrant and joyfully fantastic creations to spring from the imaginations of Studio Ghibli's gifted crew. Some may be turned off by its less-than-concrete narrative, but Spirited Away tells a stirring tale and leaves behind a wholly unique imprint on your soul.

Having to move away from the ones you love can be difficult, and young Chihiro (voice of Rumi Hiiragi) is all too aware of it. But en route to beginning a new life in the suburbs, the girl and her parents are waylaid by what soon reveals itself to be a most bizarre and otherworldly diversion. A wrong turn too many takes the family to a seemingly abandoned town, one that comes alive at nightfall...with all manner of spirits, spooks, and towering creatures. With her folks having been transformed into pigs, Chihiro is left all alone to fend for herself in a world teeming with fantastic monsters that could gobble her up on a moment's notice. Fortunately, some of this world's more kindly residents are willing to lend a helping hand, pointing our heroine towards a bathhouse run by the witch Yubaba (voice of Mari Natsuki) as a means to take shelter and figure out a way to reverse the spell placed on her parents. But with her very identity crumbling away the more time she spends among the phantoms, Chihiro hasn't long to complete her quest before she becomes a permanent part of her strange new environment.

Providing a vital assist in granting Spirited Away its singular feel involves the fact that it isn't structured like a straightforward, A-to-B fantasy adventure. This is very much a non-linear odyssey, and in spite of the ticking clock element of Chihiro working to turn her parents human again, there isn't an overwhelming sense of urgency to it. Although the story does have stakes, Miyazaki is just as concerned with addressing them as he is with patiently allowing the audience to soak up the odd world into which they've been plunged (if not leaning more towards the latter). Chilling around a bathhouse and observing a menagerie of monsters for two hours may not sound as though one's instant attention is required, but it's not as if Spirited Away hasn't any compelling story elements to reel in viewers. There are those more grown-up themes involving the plight of Japan's "street workers" that Miyazaki sought to examine under the guise of a fantasy feature, but the little kids who'll most certainly be watching will receive their own lesson in navigating the big, scary world of adults. Thrust into a situation where her parents are unable to help, Chihiro comes to learn the values of patience, trusting others, and maintaining self-worth, never giving up hope or letting the grimness of a situation take away who you are. She isn't someone who's prophecized to be "the one" as in so many movies of this kind; she's a regular little girl understandably scared out of her wits, which makes connecting and sympathizing with her much easier.

Also, solely from a visual standpoint, Spirited Away ranks as one of the most amazing achievements to come out of Studio Ghibli. Drawing upon Japanese folklore, mythology, and the creative team's vivid imagination, this picture's universe is comprised of a virtually endless array of eye-catching environments and fascinatingly-assembled beings. Witches with giant noggins, anthropomorphic frogs, sludge-drenched "stink gods" -- the list goes on and on, each new scene making way for a fresh assortment of trippy creations. Considering the flick's already relaxed sense of logic and "anything goes" approach to storytelling, these elements only further bolster its status as an Alice in Wonderland for modern times. I'd be lying if I said these supernatural characters pulling out heretofore unknown powers that all too conveniently advance the plot at particular junctures didn't feel a touch cheap at times, but I'm sure much of this has to do with not being familiar with the real life legends that inspired them. Besides, the constant stream of wildly varied spectres on parade keeps things fresh, making sure neither we or Chihiro grows too complacent. Although as busy and frenetic as the visuals can be sometimes, Miyazaki ensures that none of the detail goes by lost or unappreciated.

Spirited Away enchanted me upon first catching it on DVD, and after revisiting it with Disney's stunning new Blu-ray release, I was enraptured all over again. While I've seen other Ghibli films more and hold them in higher esteem, this one isn't a slouch by any means, for it's an ambitious movie that pays off with a world the audience remains absorbed in from start to finish. Spirited Away is a splendid motion picture whose capacity to amaze and awe seems without end.


-An introduction with Pixar's John Lasseter.

-Behind-the-scenes documentaries.

-Original Japanese storyboards.

-Original Japanese trailers and TV spots.

-A Japanese television special commemorating the film's release.

-A DVD copy of the feature film.

(Released by Walt Disney Studios and rated "PG" by MPAA.)

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