There is spiritualism and weirdness aplenty in “Spirited Away,” an animated film that is among the most delightful, imaginative stories I’ve seen all year.
It is the highest-grossing film in Japan’s history, which may be due more to a quirk of public opinion than to actual, legitimate greatness, but the film is certainly worthy of note.
What to say about a movie that has a mind-controlling black slug in it, not to mention a huge-headed grandmother figure who rules a countryside bathhouse with an iron fist? And does “Spirited Away” also feature something called a “stink spirit” that has bicycles, wrenches and other miscellaneous parts lodged in its blobby exterior? Yes. Yes it does.
“Alice in Wonderland” comes to mind, especially if Lewis Carroll had smoked more opium than he already did. Yet “Spirited Away” manages more than just goofy imagery and odd characters. It has a classical heroine on a quest, epic adventure, and some real gravity, too. You can see the writer/director, Hayao Miyazaki (“Princess Mononoke”), occasionally wiping tears of laughter from his eyes and saying, “OK, OK, let’s get serious here for a minute.”
The heroine is young Chihiro (voice of Daveigh Chase), a smart, lonely 10-year-old who is sad to be moving to a new city with her working-class parents. On the way, they are distracted by what appears to be an old amusement park, where Mom and Dad are turned into pigs, Pleasure Island-style. Turns out it’s not an amusement park but a sort of resort spa frequented only by spirits and other supernatural beings. Humans are mistrusted and disliked, making Chihiro the odd girl out.
She is befriended, though, by Haku (Jason Marsden), who tells her that in order to save her parents and return to the human world, she must get a job working for the people who run the bathhouse. Haku does not explain why the indentured servitude is necessary, but he seems to speak with authority. Chihiro first tries the crotchety, spiderish old coal furnaceman (David Ogden Stiers), then goes right to the top: Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), the aforementioned aged spinster. Chihiro signs a contract and gets a new name, Sen. Some to-do is made over the idea of losing one’s name as a metaphor for losing one’s self, but only for a minute. Then the film takes another puff and it’s back to no-faced monsters and enormous talking toads.
Then it’s one grand episode after another: dealing with the stink spirit, saving Haku, rescuing this person, reversing the spell on that person; you know the drill. Throughout it, there is much wry humor and sympathetic characterization, aided by some excellent voice work. It’s a full half hour longer than most animated films, but it’s worth every minute.
A- (2 hrs., 4 min.; )
In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my "Re-Views" column at Film.com.