Spirited Away not only has brilliant animation and marvelous storytelling, but it's also head and shoulders above what's happening in American cartoons. The latest film by revered Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose Princess Mononoke was released in the U.S. by Disney in 1999, Spirited Away mostly eschews digital technology in favor of old-fashioned hand-drawn animation. It offers a storyline and characters more akin to Grimm than Shrek.
Ten-year-old Chihiro (voiced by the plucky Daveigh Chase) is apprehensive about moving into a new house, a new town, and a new school. Her parents reassure her that her new environment will be exciting, but Chihiro grumbles in the backseat, not convinced. She gets more than she expected when her dad gets lost taking a shortcut and encounters a strange, beautiful, empty temple. As the family explores, only Chihiro is concerned that no one is around; she becomes much more so when what appears to be a free buffet turns Mom and Dad into pigs. Finding the pathway back to the temple blocked, she's befriended by an older boy, Haku (Jason Marsden), who warns her that humans are not beloved here. He sends her to hide in a boiler room commanded by Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers), an ill-tempered gent with eight stretchable legs who commands an army of cute little soot balls.
Kamaji is one of many strange and ghastly characters who populate this weird fantasy. There's Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), the nasty matron of a bathhouse where most of the action takes place, who gives Chihiro a job, but also renames her Sen (Chihiro will lose her parents forever if she forgets her original name). A mysterious black ghost with a white mask that eats people and dispenses gold nuggets like Pez is called No-Face. Talking frogs, a colossal talking baby, a trio of bouncing green heads, a giant walking radish spirit, and an elongated white dragon are also residents. My favorite was the "stink spirit," which amasses so much gunk and sludge that only a high-powered deluge of super-strong bathwater can clean him.
Although enough weirdness is happening around Chihiro to send most of us to a padded room, she's one of the strongest role models for young girls I've ever seen. She's smart, brave, and exceedingly polite, but not superhuman. She doesn't toss out unbelievable quips in stressful situations. She cries when she's scared, but doesn't hesitate to risk her life for others. She acts the way we'd like to think we would. She's one of the most appealing screen action heroines in ages.
What's most admirable about Spirited Away is that it appeals to adults and children. It earns its PG rating with splashes of blood, a vomiting mud monster, and other grotesqueries. But none of the children in the audience I saw it with appeared bothered; indeed, they seemed absorbed throughout its 125 minutes with nary a whine or fidget.
It's such an imaginative and colorful film that Disney's failure to give it the wide release it deserves is dumbfounding; perhaps the reigning American leaders in animated fantasies are afraid of being shown up by their Japanese competition. Spirited Away is showing with little promotional support, a dubious decision by Disney, which isn't shy about plastering thousands of multiplex screens with its own heavily merchandised products. Perhaps Disney couldn't think of a way to market Chihiro dolls or coloring books. But don't let the studio's stinginess keep you away from last year's best animated feature.
(Running time 2:05, rated PG)