It's become a clich for film critics to describe Japanese animation, or anime, as being more mature and imaginative than the majority of American cartoons. Like a great many clichs, however, this one happens to be true. Sure, the Japanese have produced their fair share of awful animated features, but for every Digimon: The Movie, there's an Akira, Metropolis or Perfect Blue, films that test the limits of what animation can accomplish--both in style and content--and refuse to talk down to the audience. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that while these movies dazzle the eye and mind, they frequently lack the emotional center (not to mention the narrative coherence) that American animation companies like Disney make their raison d'etre.
That's why veteran anime director Hayao Miyazaki remains such a respected force on both sides of the Pacific. Beginning with 1986's Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the first feature released by his production company Studio Ghibli, each of Miyazaki's films has managed to bridge the gap between the Japanese and American traditions. Cartoons like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service successfully combine childlike sentiment with a grown-up edge; they may be about children, but they resonate with viewers of all ages. Miyazaki's painted landscapes are so finely detailed, his character designs so unique, at times it seems as if the director is funneling his dreams directly onto the screen.
For all the acclaim Miyazaki has won in America (among critics and industry professionals alike), his films have yet to enjoy the enormous commercial success here that they do in Japan. Two of them, Laputa and Porco Rosso, are difficult to find in this country, while Totoro and Kiki debuted as direct-to-video releases (although the latter did bow to strong sales). Miyazaki's previous film, the marvelous Princess Mononoke, was given a limited theatrical run in 1999, but its dark story, heavily rooted in Japanese mythology, hindered it from ever attracting a wide audience.
Now with Spirited Away, Disney itself is stepping up to the plate to try to turn Miyazaki into a household name. They picked the right film to throw their considerable weight behind; Spirited Away is easily the director's most accessible feature since Totoro and may very well be the best of his long career. It certainly contains some of the richest animation he's ever committed to the screen. The story isn't much--it's essentially a Shintoist version of Alice in Wonderland--but Miyazaki has created such a vibrant, colorful world (repeat viewings are a necessity, if only to marvel at all the different characters he fits into a single frame), it's almost impossible not to be swept away by the sheer beauty of his images.
The Alice of this tale is a young girl named Chihiro (Daveigh Chase), whose family is leaving the city behind for the suburbs. On the way to their new home, her mom and dad stumble upon an abandoned theme park and decide to explore, with their protesting daughter in tow. Suddenly, night falls and the deserted park comes alive with all manner of spirits. Chihiro is forced to flee for her life, leaving behind her parents, who have been transformed into pigs. With the help of a mysterious boy named Haku (Jason Marsden), she secures a job at the bathhouse where the spirits come to relax. It's hard work and her boss, the villainous Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), takes great delight in seeing her struggle, but it gives her time to explore her new surroundings and devise a way to escape back to the real world.
When Disney first announced they would be releasing Spirited Away, there was some concern over how the studio might alter it for American audiences. And while certain elements were no doubt lost in translation, overall the film remains remarkably faithful to the original Japanese version, thanks in large part to the involvement of Pixar head (and self-proclaimed Miyazaki disciple) John Lasseter. The English dub contains a few clunky lines here and there, but the screenwriters wisely don't add any unnecessary dialogue, instead allowing the visuals to drive the story. The vocal cast also deserves kudos for their restrained work, particularly Chase, who keeps Chihiro from coming off as a whiny brat (a feat she also accomplished this past summer as the voice of Lilo in Lilo & Stitch).
While it's doubtful that the film will become a Lion King-sized smash, perhaps the Disney name will help encourage audiences, specifically families, to seek out Spirited Away. It's the kind of heartwarming, thought-provoking, fantastical entertainment that parents often complain doesn't exist anymore. And with Miyazaki's career nearing its end (he keeps threatening retirement), who knows if or when we'll have another opportunity to glimpse his singular artistic vision.