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SPIRITED AWAY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Hayao Miyazaki
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1 (English and Japanese)
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  125 Minutes
Release Date:  April 15, 2003

“Nothing that happens is ever forgotten…even if you can’t remember it.”

Film ****

There’s nothing quite as exhilarating for a movie lover as surrendering a couple of hours to a filmmaker with limitless imagination.  When it’s an artist of the caliber of Hayao Miyazaki, the results are seldom disappointing.  When the finished product is a movie as perfect as Spirited Away, they’re downright breathtaking.

Miyazaki, considered one of the world’s premier animators and a long time influence on even the likes of the Disney studios, has crafted plenty of wondrous works over the years, from the emotional directness of My Neighbor Totoro to the whimsicality of Kiki’s Delivery Service, to even the majestic epic Princess Mononoke.  I think Spirited Away surpasses them all as a singular masterpiece.

Audiences around the world seem to agree.  Spirited Away replaced Titanic as the highest grossing film in Japan’s history.  It shared top honors at the Berlin Film Festival.  Perhaps most impressively is the fact that it became the first movie in history to gross over $200 million worldwide BEFORE opening in North America.

But numbers are a cold way to praise a film of such warmth, depth and imagination.  Miyazaki wrote, directed, storyboarded and even did a share of hands-on animation for this film, so there’s no question as to the singularity of vision here.  After watching the movie, there’s no question as to how right a man Miyazaki is for this kind of project.

He creates a ceaselessly surprising dream world, with new amazements never more than a few feet of film away.  He gives us characters that are in a constant state of revelation…they continue to inspire awe and wonder even after we assume we have them placed.  His canvas is a wide scope where no detail is too small to overlook, and given the time consuming and painstaking art of animation, the attention seems lavished with a loving hand and heart.

The story follows a ten year old girl named Chihiro, who is sad to be leaving her friends behind as her family moves.  En route to their destination, she and her parents come across a curious tunnel that leads to what appears to be an abandoned amusement park.  Despite her fears and reservations, her parents decide to look around, and are delighted to find a banquet of hot food waiting for them!

But all is not as it seems in this world.  As the sun begins to go down, the shadows begin to come alive.  The seemingly abandoned world teems with life, as spirits of every shape and size emerge to take part in a dreamlike ritual of enchantment.

Learning her parents have fallen under a spell, it will be up to Chihiro, an unwelcome human in a spirit world, to free both herself and her family, if she can conquer her fears and summon courage she never knew she had.

Describing the plot is not so hard, but trying to come up with a translation of Miyazaki’s vision into written words is frankly impossible.  I could offer a laundry list of descriptions of some of the visions to behold in the movie, but it wouldn’t do them justice.  Besides, nothing compares to the experience of seeing them for the first time.  In fact, if you’ve never seen this picture before, I’d recommend going straight to it…save the features and trailers for later.  The less you know going in the better the enjoyment.

In a few strokes of the keyboard, I would simply like to say that the world of Spirited Away is like none other you’ve seen.  The characters are strange, beautiful, and frightening all at the same time.  The landscapes are colorful and surreal, giving the appearance of a place where anything can and will happen.  In our modern world where computers can create the most fantastic settings before our eyes, my only hope is we will never lose appreciation for what can still be done with ink and paper.

As long as we have films emerging from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki, I don’t think that will ever happen.

Video ****

This is an impeccably beautiful anamorphic transfer from Disney.  Every subtle nuance of Miyazaki’s vision comes through with clarity, boldness of color, and vibrant detail.  His palate is rich and wide, and every tone and shade emerge with remarkable distinction and vividness.  From brights to darks, nothing is wasted or lost in the frame.  Animation continues to be a forte of DVD, and discs like this continue to provide the evidence why.

Audio ***

Although I personally found the original Japanese track more engrossing and less distracting than the English one, the good news is that whichever one YOU choose, you’ll get a quality surround offering.  The 5.1 tracks are full and dynamic, with infrequent but effective use of the rear stage, and the subwoofer giving the action scenes extra kick.  The English dubbed version works fairly well as far as matching mouth movements, but the American sounding voices may take you out of the element a bit.  Joe Hisaishi’s music is a plus on both tracks, though…expressive and beautiful.

Features **1/2

Despite being a double disc set, I found the features to be a little lacking here.  Disc one contains Pixar’s John Lasseter giving an introduction and a promotional making of featurette that’s more tributorial than informative.  Disc two features a look at the English dubbing process with stars like Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden and David Ogden Stiers, a Japanese TV special, storyboard comparisons, and a collection of Japanese trailers all run together (some of them are astonishingly long).  

Summary:

Spirited Away is a work of unbridled imagination and wonder for all ages…extremely deserving of its public and critical acclaim and its big win on Oscar night.  This will be remembered as a classic long into the future, with older generations continually passing it down to newer ones.  Highest recommendation.