Director’s Series: Hayao Miyazaki: Spirited Away

Note: This review is more of a generalized one, discussing the animation, music and acting. The story, themes and characters will be the subject of a longer, more in-depth essay. As such, the plot will be covered there.

It’s the film that eclipsed Titanic at the Japanese box office, that won Miyazaki his first American Oscar, and is nearly universally adored by critics around the world. Does it deserve that praise? Absolutely. While Princess Mononoke is my favorite of Miyazaki’s films, Spirited Away is still an absolute masterpiece. It’s almost unfair that he and the army of animators at Studio Ghibli were able to make a film this good.

The film feels like a wonderful dream half the time, one that both our hero Chihiro/Sen (Daveigh Chase in the dub, who had just voiced Lilo of Lilo & Stitch for Disney) and we are having. To my understanding, this was the first Ghibli film entirely inked and painted digitally (Mononoke has some sequences done this way, but is still largely hand-inked and painted). I love the traditional way myself, but there’s no denying that this way gives the characters more of a snap and freedom. In particular, I can’t imagine the greedy witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) or the spider-man Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers) looking as good as they do in the older, softer style of the early films. Visually, it is an embarrassment of riches.

Joe Hiasishi puts in one of his best scores of all time, arguably. I especially like the tense, early sections of the film when Chihiro is thrust into this strange world. The music pounds in alternate moods of excitement and terror. The Disney dub, supervised by Pixar’s John Lasseter and Beauty and the Beast co-director Kirk Wise, is one of their very best. Chase is perhaps a little whiny and shouting in the first part of the film, but considering that’s what her character is doing, I cut her some slack, and her acting is excellent throughout the whole film anyway. Pleshette arguably steals the show, with her harsh, raspy voice and the smooth way she glides through the various contours of Yubaba’s surprisingly complex personality. Stiers is gruff but lovable; even when he is a jerk to Chihiro in their first scene, we sense that he is not altogether bad. Marsden has a young voice that is by turns mysterious and encouraging, and his ambiguous performance helps keep the audience uncertain about his motives. Susan Egan (who had played Meg in Disney’s Hercules a few years prior) is terrific as Lin, a cynical bathhouse worker who ends up becoming a tough older sister figure to Chihiro. On the supporting end of things, Bob Bergen (the current voice of Porky Pig) gets some excellent work in the scenes when his frog character is swallowed and then imitated by the mysterious No-Face, the unmistakable John Ratzenberger shows up as a prominent manager, and Michael Chiklis and Lauren Holly nail their opening scenes as Chihiro’s arrogant, unhelpful parents.

As noted above, a separate essay will cover the film, scene-by-scene, in terms of plot, story, character and themes. I could easily write an entire book on just this film. But for now, I will simply say that Spirited Away is a gem of a movie, and deserves to be seen by everyone on the planet. If you haven’t seen it, go. Rent it, buy it, download it off Itunes, I don’t care. It cries out to be experienced by new eyes.

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