Spirited Away (2002)
Spirited Away (2002)

Genre: Adventure and Fantasy Running Time: 2 hrs. 5 min.

Release Date: September 20th, 2002 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Hayao Miyazaki Actors: Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden, Susan Egan, David Ogden Stiers, Lauren Holly, Michael Chiklis, John Ratzenberger

 


 

C

hihiro (Rumi Hiiragi [in Japanese], Daveigh Chase [in English]) and her family are moving to a new town, which means a new grocery store, a new house, and a new school – all things that couldn’t excite the young girl any less. “It’s fun to move to a new place!” insists her mother. But Chihiro isn’t thrilled to lose her friends and the comforting life she had.

When Chihiro’s father tries to take a shortcut, the trio discovers what looks to be an ancient stone building at the end of a bumpy road. When they investigate further, they realize that it’s an entrance to an abandoned theme park, full of facades, green grass, and animal-like gargoyles strewn about the property. Little Chihiro is scared to enter the structure, and even more terrified when her parents locate a restaurant full of fresh food, amidst row after row of disused shops. With credit cards and cash at the ready, the parents fearlessly begin to snack, even though they don’t see any cook or staff; Chihiro, however, slinks away, thinking that they’ll get in trouble. And that’s when she spies a bathhouse that seems to be mysteriously occupied; a boy who angrily warns her of the rapidly approaching nightfall; and inky black specters that rise up from the ground.

“I’m dreaming! Wake up!” If this wasn’t a family-friendly, traditionally animated picture by Hayao Miyazaki, the opening events would fit perfectly in the world of “Silent Hill.” Unexplained, eerie things happen – and then grow steadily more and more bizarre. When a giant bird with an old woman’s head in place of a standard avian face swoops through the sky, the film becomes downright nightmarish.

And yet, despite the ghosts, witches, spells, ravenous pigs, talking frogs, and all sorts of anthropomorphized mutant creatures, there’s a sense of wonder and adventure in the heroine’s quest through a strange land. It’s something of an update on “Alice in Wonderland” too, particularly with Chihiro needing to eat foods from the world in order to avoid slowly vanishing, along with magical elements that alter the way this curious environment operates, and a series of stops prior to a rescue that reveal odd inhabitants and unexpected allies. Additionally, the character designs look fitting for entities that might appear down the rabbit hole.

The various missions for Chihiro’s survival feel as if manufactured spontaneously, especially as they don’t seem to work organically to build upon her ultimate goal. She’s ferried from one location to the next by ever weirder monstrosities, like Neo in the Matrix or Sarah in “Labyrinth,” before they find out the truths about their unreal realities. Here, however, Chihiro – and, by extension, the audience – are denied explanations for so long that it’s difficult to emotionally invest in her increasingly upsetting situations. And even when answers eventually arise, they’re based in a type of fantasy that doesn’t play by distinct, familiar rules.

The happenings are so dreadful that they’re either funny or simply scary. The alternatingly brave and confused-to-tears child must conquer a bevy of fears and faults while navigating the unending strangeness – from loneliness to clumsiness to betrayal to mind control to a hard day’s work (and even the fear of heights) – all while also learning about friendship, persistence, obedience, manipulation, generosity, responsibility, greed/gluttony, and teamwork. In many ways, the film reflects the feelings of paranoia and uncertainty from a Hitchcock thriller (such as “Vertigo” or “North By Northwest”), as Chihiro struggles to sort out being the “wrong man” in an alternate reality of continual hazards. Plus, severed heads, crippling curses, vomiting blobs, characters bleeding to death and getting eaten alive, and threats of murder and mutilation are persistent, yet somehow never deemed too severe for the youthful misadventures of Miyazaki’s wild imagination.

With additional notes of Willy Wonka, “The Polar Express,” “Pinocchio,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and just about every other whimsical fantasy epic, “Spirited Away” is a singular amalgamation of countless other stories. Yet its predilection for comical freakishness undeniably sets it apart; it’s an off-the-wall fable full of riddles and metaphors and even a hint of playful romance (the most mature aspect of Chihiro’s rite of passage). At first glance, however, the production is mostly bewildering and inexplicable – rather than profound – even if there’s a strong satisfaction in Chihiro’s fortitude and plenty of appeal in the imaginative visuals.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10