Casual American moviegoers have been under the giant mouse thumb for so long that they could forget animation comes from other places besides the unblinking maw of the corporate Disney smile machine. An occasional non-Disney cartoon feature has reached cultural relevance, but for most of the last 15 years during cinema’s animation revival, this art form has been running on a treadmill of catchy songs, cookie-cutter plots, cute supporting characters and wink-wink adult asides in pictures designed to make as much money as possible from repeated viewings by children.
It’s not that Disney makes bad films. Almost all of their animated product is quite entertaining. It’s just repetitive to the point of creative nausea. Nothing has ever come along that was as original, compelling and just plain unfamiliar as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which started everything after knocking everybody on their asses in 1937.
Spirited Away doesn’t quite reach that level of cultural importance, despite the unconditionally fawning praise given to it by audiences and critics across the globe. That’s hardly a criticism, however—the latest creation of Japanese auteur Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) is a boundlessly imaginative work that should interest children and adults alike even if they’ve never tried anime before. Or even if, like me, they’ve tried anime and hated it.
It’s the most popular film in Japanese history, and it has won top honors at international film festivals. It may be the height of Miyazaki’s long, varied career, as well as a definitive examination of many of his favorite themes: childlike wonder, the maturation process and environmental responsibility. More importantly, it’s visually stunning, with more invention in any one of Miyazaki’s thousands of hand-drawn frames than you’ll get in all of The Emperor’s New Groove.
In an added layer of irony, Spirited Away is brought to you by Disney. The company purchased the North American rights to Miyazaki’s catalog and supervised this full-length (124 minutes!) adaptation, including excellent voice casting.
It’s the story of 10-year-old Chihiro (Americanized voice by Lilo and Stitch’s Daveigh Chase) and her parents, who are in the process of moving to a new town. They get lost in a forest, however, and they stumble upon an aging collection of buildings that Chihiro’s father takes to be an abandoned theme park. The parents look around—and they wander into a restaurant where they’re transformed into pigs.
I know, this probably doesn’t sound like a good use of $7, but it’s difficult to describe the spiraling flights of fancy on which Miyazaki takes us. There’s nothing staid or corporate about this picture, which requires nearly as much adjustment as understanding the shape-shifting dynamics of the world in which Chihiro finds herself.
In the coming darkness, she sees spirits everywhere, and she begins to disappear—but she finds a boy named Haku (Jason Marsden) who becomes her protector. It seems the family is in a corner of the world where spirits (it’s a euphemistic term for which no explanation is necessary, as we learn) visit to replenish themselves. Chihiro gets a job at a bathhouse—and then things start to get weird.
With its off-kilter storytelling and decidedly Eastern way of looking at things, Spirited Away isn’t the most accessible film for American audiences—and that’s a primary reason that it’s so interesting. It’s an old-fashioned fantasy in which decades of childhood imagination take life before us—monsters, spirits, adventures and all the wonder that only animation seems capable of stirring in us. It’s unpredictable and gorgeous, with visual concepts of water, shape-shifting and even humans that you’re unlikely to forget. The world of animation hasn’t seen more than a handful of films so completely original as Spirited Away since Snow White. If you’re up to the challenge of exploring an unfamiliar world, rewards await.