Review by Walid Habboub
September 26, 2002
Very few North Americans have ever heard of Hayao Miyazaki, who is, by all accounts, a legend of Japanese cinema. Getting his start on television with the much-beloved show Future Boy Conan, Miyazaki has begun to carve himself a place in North American pop culture, especially within the small yet loyal fan base devoted to Japanese animation, also known as anime. His infiltration into North America began with My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, both of which, while grand and imaginative, lacked all the intensity and popcorn flair that North American audiences expect from an animated film. What garnered Miyazaki real attention was the meticulously animated and quite violent Princess Mononoke. And while that film was expected to launch Miyazaki into the mainstream, it will likely be Spirited Away that takes the credit for his arrival on our shores.
Spirited Away is clearly a movie for adults yet it is safe for kids. While both parents and children can enjoy the absolutely breathtaking animation, the adults will appreciate the story while their kids will most likely be left a little confused. It's not that the plot is complex, but it is the film's characters and world that are complicated. The film is intricate on an emotional level, something that probably most of its audience will not be expecting. But for all its layered aspects, the film is driven by a wonderful innocence that makes it quite endearing and ultimately very fulfilling.
Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, who one day walks into a strange world with her parents and finds herself struggling to survive in an odd world filled with even odder characters. It really is enough to know this about the film; in fact, you already might know too much. You see, the beauty of the film lies in not knowing what lies beyond the dark, windy passageway through which Chihiro and her parents walk. Not knowing anything about the film means that you go on the same journey as Chihiro, and it means that all the wonders of the world she walks into will be new and surprising. This course is what can distinguish between the film being good to the film being great.
It is also enough to know that Spirited Away is a mixture of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. In fact, the parallels are neither minor nor, probably, accidental. The movie shares all the strange and sometimes frightening characters of both fables, as well as featuring the journey of a character into a bizarre world, and while all three walk the fine line between children's story and adult themes, Spirited Away is decidedly more upbeat and humorous than the other two. There are genuine moments of hilarity peppered throughout Spirited Away and they only add to the charm of the film.
What distinguishes Miyazaki's work from his sources of inspiration is a lighter mood and a true understanding of childish wonder. Where Wonderland was decidedly dark and Oz was distinctly strange, Miyazaki's world always feels anchored in reality. All the characters in the film are given more than one dimension and are more than just caricatures. The world feels familiar even though it is decidedly off-kilter. Part of what keeps us grounded in our own world and makes this other world feel real is the beautiful images and animation in the film. The look of the film itself is something to behold, and the film would still be highly enjoyable if it was neither translated nor subtitled.
Miyazaki's Spirited Away really is a great piece of filmmaking. It captures all the wonder of our favorite myths and fables and presents them in a beautiful way. With its honest look at childhood wonder, the film manages to be timeless. When watching it, you feel as if it is a story being told to you by a wise old man who has seen many wondrous things and knows many wondrous tales. There's a comfort in the film and you can't help but leave the theater with a smile on your face. While many would say that the art of storytelling isn't what it used to be, Miyazaki defiantly disagrees and gives us a story for the ages in Spirited Away.