Spirited Away

In the making-of feature on the Spirited Away DVD, there is a scene in which Hayao Miyazaki (the film's writer and director) asks his animation team, "Have any of you ever had a dog?" The question concerns a particular scene in which the heroine, Chihiro, must pry open the ma`w of a wolf-headed dragon. To achieve a certain realism, the animators want to make it look like prying open a dog's mouth. But given their inexperience, it's off to a local vet to film themselves forcing open some canine jaws. While the idea of live research forcing open a dog's mouth may seem odd, this devotion to detail is apparent when watching Spirited Away. Subtle touches of realism are everywhere, such as Chihiro tapping her foot when putting on her shoe, or the way Chihiro's mother holds her arm when she eats. These minor details make Spirited Away, despite its fantasy setting, seem very much a part of the real world. For long-time animation fans, such devotion to the craft should come as little surprise given the pedigree set by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The level of quality that fans have come to expect from Ghibli are met with Spirited Away—the film is gorgeous. Artwork is lavish and vibrant, featuring stunning depictions of the fantasy world in which Chihiro finds herself. The animation is life-like and fluid, with realistic nuances in character movements. And complimenting the wonderful visuals is the sweeping musical score by composer Jo Hisaishi. Spirited Away opens with Chihiro and her parents traveling to their new home. Chihiro resents the idea and expresses her disapproval in a quiet sulk. Along the way, her father mistakes an off-beaten road for a short cut, and they inadvertently wind up in what he thinks is an abandoned amusement park. A brief exploration reveals a restaurant's unattended buffet and Chihiro's parents succumb to the delicious offerings. While her parents gorge themselves on the food, Chihiro continues to explore and encounters a young man named Haku. Haku warns her to leave at once, but by this time it is too late. Chihiro discovers she is trapped in a vacation spot for the spirit world and that her parents have literally become pigs. With no one to turn to, she must learn how to survive in this strange land and, more importantly, how rescue her parents and return home. The story is primarily about Chihiro's personal growth and the life lessons she learns from her experiences in the spirit world. She manages to land work at a bathhouse run by a stern matriarch named Yubaba. As the newest member of the staff and shunned by the other workers, she is given the most grueling, demeaning jobs. But Chihiro responds in a fashion that is both admirable and believable, and even makes a few friends along the way. Miyazaki's envisioned world is filled with all sorts of beings, from the wondrous and mystical to the just plain strange. Some have distinctly animals characteristics, such as the frog caretakers of the bath house or the insect-like boiler-room operator, Kamagi. Others, like No-Face, a shapeless black being who wears a white mask, or the stink spirit, a mass of oozing brown goo, are more transcendent. And then there are whimsical creatures, like the delightful little soot balls and a walking lamp. The English dub is a treat, but with Disney's resources, anything less would have been disappointing. Casting is all-around excellent, highlighted by Daveigh Chase's spot-on performance as Chihiro. Memorable performances are also turned in by Suzanne Pleshette as Yubaba and Susan Egan as Lin. But for die-hard subtitle fans, the DVD release also sports the original Japanese track in full 5.1 surround sound. Disney seems to have learned from the fiasco resulting from their planned English-only release of Princess Mononoke. Having displaced Titanic as Japan's #1 all-time film, been the subject of near-universal praise by critics, and received numerous accolades (including a 2003 Academy Award for "Best Animated Film"), the consensus is in: Spirited Away is a wonderful film. And I can't say I disagree with that. The Verdict: * * * * 1/2 (very good)

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