U.S. Release Date: September 20, 2002
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Producer: John Lasseter (executive producer: US)
Running Time: 2 hours and 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (some scary moments)

An Artistic Masterpiece
by C.A. Wolski

Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away not only is one of the best movies of the year, it is without doubt the most beautiful and beautifully realized one as well. The work of an army of animators, each frame of Spirited Away is a moving artistic masterpiece. That it is set in one of the most splendidly surrealistic fantasylands this side of Oz and tells a surprisingly adult story is almost secondary.

Chihiro and her parents are en route to their new home somewhere in rural Japan. Chihiro is sad about leaving her friends behind and is being petulant about the move, while her parents chide her with their sunny optimism about the change—they are clearly excited about the new adventure. A wrong turn brings the family to a seemingly abandoned theme park, which in actuality is the home of the bathhouse of the Japanese spirit world (apparently this is a big need in that cosmology). The parents' gluttony and the approaching night trap Chihiro in the spirit world, which obliges her to take a job in the bathhouse.

In a conventional Western animated picture, Chihiro would spend the rest of the time trying to escape, leading to a big confrontation with the evil villain—in this case the bathhouse proprietor Ubaba—in the wake of several tone-deaf musical numbers. But this is not conventional by any means. Spirited Away is a rare movie in today's marketplace. It takes its time to tell a story. And it's the story not of Chihiro's escape from this strange new world, but her growth from an awkward, petulant and rude little girl into a confident, loving and polite young lady.

It's the fact that Miyazaki takes his time and creates a three-dimensional world that makes Spirited Away such a treat. Not only has Chihiro and her family been dropped into the spirit world, but so has the audience. It is a world filled with dragons, over-sized babies, talking frogs and faceless spirits. None of it is frightening or ugly—the movie is too bright even to contemplate ugliness—it is the best of all dream worlds, a little scary and incomprehensible, but fascinating at the same time. However there is one intense scene near the end in which a character is quite obviously hurt and near death that might upset smaller kids.

Those already acquainted with anime—the idiom for Japanese animation—will know what to expect, but if this is your first foray into this cinematic form, you will not find musical numbers, coy animals (though there's a cute mouse and some coal dust sprites that are scene stealers) or pulse pounding action sequences. The best anime movies are the ones that use the liberating form of the brush to tell an adult story in a highly stylized way—a mission Spirited Away accomplishes effortlessly.

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