An Animation Sensation: 'Spirited Away' Into Wonderland

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 20, 2002

The life of a little girl amounts to a hill of beans in the crazy world of "Spirited Away," a spectacularly inventive animated film by Japan's Hayao Miyazaki ("Princess Mononoke," "Kiki's Delivery Service"), a man who knows how to fill a screen with wonder.

In the tradition of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," "Spirited Away" is about a girl who overcomes her fears when plopped into a strange world and takes control of her fate. Along the way she learns courage, love and responsibility, but the messages are woven subtly into the fabric of the tale.

Gorgeous, ghostly, multihued landscapes, some of them apparently enhanced with computer-generated depth, mingle with wonderful animated characters: the little heroine Chihiro, cute little scuttling soot-balls with pleading eyes, bouncing green cabbage heads and a squat witch with a corrugated nose who morphs into a crow.

Disney, which is releasing the film in the United States, had directors Kirk Wise ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame") and John Lasseter ("Toy Story," "A Bug's Life") and their teams supervise the translation, adaptation and dubbing of the English dialogue. They've done it with hardly any annoying lip-flap. (For purists, a version in the original Japanese – with subtitles – will be shown at the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7.)

Children 8 and older should enjoy the film, though at more than two hours it may be a long sit for some youngsters. (Younger kids might be scared by the monsters and ghosts.) The middle of the film briefly lags in a jam of idling subplots and the musical score is occasionally treacly, but those are quibbles. There's precious little in "Spirited Away" to cause fidgets in young or old, and far more to produce awe and laughter.

Ten-year-old Chihiro (Daveigh Chase, who voiced Lilo in "Lilo & Stitch") is miserable in the back seat of her parents' car because they're moving to a new town and she's sooo not interested. Then they come upon what looks like an abandoned theme park. Mom and Dad (Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis) want to explore. Chihiro joins them reluctantly and becomes scared when they walk into a dark building and the wind picks up.

Emerging into a Disneyland-style main street, her folks find a restaurant. There's no human in sight, but the counters are piled high. Famished, the adults chow down. Chihiro wanders off and encounters a mysterious boy who warns her to leave before dark. When she goes back to warn her folks, they've transformed into pigs. The boy, Haku (Jason Marsden), explains that her family has trespassed upon a secret place – a bathhouse for the spirits. The diaphanous mini-gods and maxi-monsters all come to soak, eat and replenish themselves. Among them are a lumpy Radish Spirit, an oozing Stink god, a Frog Spirit, a River god and gaggles more.

Haku advises Chihiro to meet the many-armed manager of the boiler room, Kamajii (David Ogden Stiers), and ask for a job so she can stay and try to save her parents' bacon – literally, as they could become a snack at any moment. Then she must get approval from the cranky witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), who runs the place.

Thus begin Chihiro's myriad adventures, which feel like old myths and wonder tales spun afresh.

SPIRITED AWAY (PG, 125 minutes) Contains ghosts, monsters and witches, some of them gross and scary. At AMC Mazza Gallerie in English and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7 in Japanese with subtitles>

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