Spirited Away (2002)


Before Spirited Away, most of my experience with Japanese animation had been, shall we say, less than favorable. (Pokemon The Movie 2000, anyone?) Even the one everybody liked, Princess Mononoke, released in the U.S. in 1999, left me cold. Whether it was the animation style, the stories, the cultural differences, or some combination of factors, anime and I were not getting along.

But then: Spirited Away! Pixar guru John Lasseter, a huge fan of the film who was largely responsible for getting Disney to release it in the United States, oversaw the English-language dubbing. Already Japan’s highest-grossing film in history up to that point, it became a hit in the U.S., too, and won the Oscar for best animated feature (beating Disney’s own Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet). Almost every movie critic went nuts for it, and I was no exception…

What I said then:

“[This] is among the most delightful, imaginative stories I’ve seen all year…. 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…. It’s one grand episode after another…. 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.” Grade: A- [complete review]

The next films by this director, Hayao Miyazaki — who’d also made Princess Mononoke — were Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo, both of which I liked well enough but for which I couldn’t muster a lot of enthusiasm. In both cases, I felt myself wanting to love them the way I’d loved Spirited Away, and being frustrated that it wasn’t working out. In my memory, Spirited Away remained infallible — “Miyazaki’s masterpiece” is what I called it in my Ponyo review.

The re-viewing:

So you can imagine my surprise when I re-watched Spirited Away last week for the first time since 2002 and found myself reacting exactly the way I’d reacted to Miyazaki’s other movies: impressed by the creativity, casually amused, but not really invested in the story. It turns out the Miyazaki film I’d thought was his standout was really on about the same level as the others.

Weird things happen constantly in the Spirited Away universe. Even minor details are given a whimsical twist. In 2002, this steady stream of imagination delighted me. Now it exhausts me. Yes, yes, you’re very creative. I get it. Could you maybe streamline all this merriment into a story? Without a coherent narrative to latch onto, I grew bored and impatient. It was like watching a series of unconnected dreams.

As fate would have it, an old pal of mine, David Cornelius, had written a negative review of the film — one of only four cataloged at Rotten Tomatoes — that summarized the way I now felt about it. He wrote: “The plot becomes as freeform as the characters, and we’re treated to a series of (occasionally confusing, rarely entertaining) episodes in which our heroine explores this strange new world. There’s stuff about, among other things, a giant baby, a mischievous spirit named No Face, and a ‘stink spirit.’… None of this makes much sense, but it’s not really supposed to; it’s all so ‘dreamlike’ and such. But it’s not very interesting…. Ultimately, Spirited Away is a movie that’s often great to look at, but not that much fun to watch.”

Dave’s negative feelings were much stronger than mine, but I agree with his general sentiments. I simply wasn’t enchanted by the colorful nonsense this time. Between the periodic bursts of bedazzlement (which really do stand out), I struggled to maintain interest. The good ultimately outweighs the not-as-good, but it was disappointing to discover that Miyazaki’s meandering, mischievous magic now felt cold rather than magical.

Do I still love this movie?

We’ll have to downgrade it from “love” to “like OK.” I would gladly show it to my nieces, who are at the right age to relate to the young heroine and who would probably be enraptured by the vivid, surreal weirdness on display. For me, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that Miyazaki just isn’t my thing. Grade: B