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Spirited Away

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Spirited Away is the latest film to hit theaters from Hayao Miyazaki, the genius who also created Princess Mononoke.

It’s a beautiful film, and it’s highly recommended to anyone who’s interested in Anime at all (or to anyone who enjoyed Mononoke). The computer animated sequences are seamlessly integrated into the traditionally animated sequences, and there are simply some astonishing visuals.

The plot is neatly summed up by the trailer; for those of you disinclined to download the trailer, a young girl gets separated from her parents and gets sucked into a parallel world of spirits. There she finds that her parents have been turned into giant greedy pigs by an evil witch; she spends the rest of the film attempting to both find her way back into the “real” world and to find a way to return her parents to their natural form.

The character design is amazing; from a spidery old man to assorted spirits to a gigantic spoiled baby, there’s a tremendous amount of creativity and care in the creation of the characters who populate the film. They contribute tremendously to the familiar-yet-utterly-alien feel that the spirit world has; Miyazaki has taken familiar types and expanded, contorted, and elongated them to the point of grotesqueness, then cast them in his movie.

More interesting is how the spirit world is presented: it’s a huge, massive, independent universe with its own history and infrastructure that we only see a small part of. There’s a train (don’t ask) that runs through the spirit world; at one point, before the little girl gets on the train, a character tells her that she’ll have to get off at a particular stop, then adds, with a sigh, “you’ll have to find your own way back; the train used to run in both directions but doesn’t anymore.” And from that point on, the matter is dropped.

That’s a huge departure from your average American (or western) fantasy movie (or novel, for that matter), where everything is explicated and fully explained. A western fantasy would have made something like the one-way train a major plot point; Miyazaki simply treats it as a detail of a larger world that we never get to explore. The movie is full of things like that, little details and gracenotes that create a fuller, larger world.

The voice acting is nicely done; someone spent a lot of time making sure that the English translation actually matched up with the characters’ mouth movements.

This film broke all sorts of box-office records in Japan; while it’s unlikely to do so here in States (for one thing, we lack the cultural background to fully appreciate the symbolism sprinkled throughout the film), it is definitely a cut above the mindless dreck that populates our multiplexes. I strongly suggest that you go see it; you’ll come back surprised.

The film isn’t as thematically complex as Mononoke, and it’s more episodic; but one suspects that Miyazaki wasn’t trying to make a statement movie. It works on many levels; it is at once an adventure movie, a meditation on identity, and a sly, subtle comment about industrialization and the environment.

Note: this really isn’t a children’s movie. It’s rated PG — not G, which is very rare for an animated feature — for a reason. Maybe for older children, 10 and up, but I suspect that anyone younger will be bored.

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About Paul Frankenstein

  • Eric Olsen

    Very well done Paul, thanks.

  • Ah, y’all are coming late to the party – this hit Blogcritics ages ago. But the more, the merrier, especially when it comes to giving attention to this film. Nicely done.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks for the reminder Russ, I thought this was vaguely familiar. But there is nothing wrong with multiple reviews.

  • Oh, I agree, Eric. More viewpoints = better information, almost always.

  • You’re wrong about the age range. I took my boys (5 and 7) and their 6-year-old friend to it, and they were gripped throughout. Also, the way the initially disturbing and scary spirit world resolves itself into people living their lives too makes it less scary than it seems at first.

    And I can see where Monsters Inc drew some inspiration.

  • You must have very advanced kids. 😉