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Ghost World 

Japanese filmmaker creates a haunting masterpiece

Why hasn't every single animated movie ever made blown us out of our collective seats? If there's a film genre that qualifies as an open invitation for moviemakers to let it all artistically hang out, it would be the animated field, where writers and directors don't have to worry about special effects proving too costly or stars turning too temperamental. In the animated kingdom, the imagination is truly king, and it's depressing to note just how small-minded most of its product has turned out over the years.That's why Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is such a revered figure among toon buffs: There are no buffers or boundaries clogging up his brain cells. Discerning American filmgoers should be mildly familiar with his work: My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service have been available on video for years, and Princess Mononoke played stateside movie houses a couple of years ago. Mononoke was also the film that emerged as Japan's all-time top moneymaker until Titanic came along to knock it off.
MATERIAL GIRL Human child Chihiro meets the ethereal No-Face in Spirited Away (Photo: Disney)
  • MATERIAL GIRL Human child Chihiro meets the ethereal No-Face in Spirited Away (Photo: Disney)

Well, Miyazaki has reclaimed his throne -- in his homeland, anyway -- as his latest picture Spirited Away (**** out of four) has surpassed even the mighty Titanic to become that nation's new all-time top grosser. In this country, it probably won't even make as much as a family dud like The Country Bears, but speaking purely on artistic terms, it's the best animated feature to hit theaters since Beauty and the Beast 11 years ago.

Creative beyond all reason or expectation, Spirited Away (as a US moniker, it's a better fit than the original Japanese title, Sen and the Mysterious Disappearance of Chihiro) is a phenomenal achievement, a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema that stirs memories of everything from Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz to Where the Wild Things Are and Yellow Submarine. Featuring visions more suited to a hallucinatory dream than a movie screen, this picture takes particular delight in confounding our expectations every step of the way -- not since Being John Malkovich has a movie proven to be so gloriously unpredictable.

At its core, though, the story relays themes found in all sorts of timeless tales, ones pertaining to honor, sacrifice, responsibility and respect. And its opening moments seem commonplace, as a young girl named Chihiro (voiced in this dubbed version by Lilo & Stitch's Daveigh Chase) and her parents, driving toward their new house, take a shortcut down a road obviously less traveled. There, they come upon a dark tunnel; whiny Chihiro wants to turn back, but her folks elect to see what's on the other side. "It's an old theme park!" enthuses the dad, as he takes in the colorful buildings that greet them upon emerging. Actually, it's not, as everyone finds out once the sun goes down. Within moments of the darkness, Chihiro discovers that her parents have been turned into pigs and that the big building in the distance is actually a supernatural bathhouse, a place where weary spirits and gods can go to relax and enjoy a good soak.

With no ruby red slippers to click three times, Chihiro must find another way to get home. First, though, she has to rescue her parents from their porcine state, and to do that, she must bide her time by working in the bathhouse alongside a real mix of characters. She receives help from a boy spirit named Haku (Jason Marsden) and a spunky big-sister sort called Lin (Susan Egan), but she must also constantly protect herself from the schemes of Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), the big-haired, big-headed, elderly woman who runs the joint.

Perhaps only the Cantina in Star Wars can match this film's bathhouse as a sight for soaring eyes unable to believe the sheer number of unusual creatures sauntering through the place. Some, like a gabby frog or an oversized infant, seem somewhat familiar, but others, like the bubbling Stink Spirit, the mysterious No-Face or the portly Radish Spirit (whose mere appearance instantly brings to mind "I Am the Walrus"), come across as complete originals (my favorites are probably the three green, goateed heads that roll around the floor speaking only in grunts). These creatively constructed critters are matched by their surroundings, from a train track that runs just below the surface of the surrounding body of water to the bathhouse itself. If animated features could qualify for the Best Art Direction & Set Decoration Oscar, this would be a lock for a nomination.

Spirited Away would probably be worthwhile simply as an ocular treat, but the story's good, too, with most of the audience investment coming from watching Chihiro develop from a frightened, pampered child into a person of great confidence and courage, doing whatever it takes to make circumstances better for those she cares about (not only her parents but some of the denizens of this ghost world as well). As a take-charge kinda kid, she's right up there with Dorothy and Alice, and her spunk and resourcefulness eventually win over almost everyone on both sides of the screen.

When it became known that Disney would handle the release of Spirited Away in this country, there was a fear that the studio suits would tsk-tsk at the film's 125-minute running time and chop it down to a more tyke-friendly 80-minute range. Fortunately, under the careful supervision of John Lasseter (Toy Story), Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast) and other studio-related fans of Miyazaki, not a frame was cut, and the film is being released intact. That's a blessing, because even at its normal length, Spirited Away doesn't even come close to wearing out its welcome and indeed could have withstood even more scenes overflowing with magic and imagination. Say, is there a Director's Cut lying around anywhere?

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