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Spirited Away

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After writing and directing the 1997 animated epic Princess Mononoke, Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki announced that he was planning to retire. Thank goodness he changed his mind. His new Spirited Away is a wonderful encore, marked by the painstaking attention to detail and artful balance between terror and joy that make his work unique. Spirited Away centers on Chihiro, a sullen, fearful Japanese girl whose parents are moving so far out into the country that they predict they'll have to drive to the next town just to shop. While traveling to their new home, they discover an abandoned, disintegrating theme park, which they cheerfully explore in spite of Chihiro's shrill protests. Suddenly, a boy approaches her and commands her to leave before nightfall. But before she can gather her wayward parents and escape, night does fall, in a breathtakingly eerie sequence that almost subsumes Chihiro's danger with its technical achievement. Chihiro is trapped in the spirit world, and in order to save herself, her parents, and eventually her new friend, she has to come to terms with herself and her unwitting captors. Gradually, in a series of almost episodic adventures, she learns to be brave and face up to her responsibilities to herself and the people she loves. The baseline material is fairly standard stuff for a child's adventure story, but the complex trappings and the shape of that story are uniquely Miyazaki. Chihiro (convincingly voiced in the English dub by Daveigh Chase, who was similarly remarkable as Lilo in Lilo & Stitch) comes across as plucky but authentically childlike as she faces down a crowded, jangling, wildly variegated horde of frog-men, river-dragons, nameless ooze-beasts, radish-giants, and, above all, the witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), a huge-headed, bejeweled monstrosity who steals names and memories. Miyazaki's luminescent, gorgeously realized world is relatively safe for children (good beats out evil and love conquers all, though it's more important that honesty, courage, and personal integrity are always eventually rewarded), but it also acknowledges blood, pain, dread, and death in ways that other animated films wouldn't dare. Spirited Away is nowhere near as grim and despairing as Princess Mononoke, but neither does it take place in the effervescent, sunny worlds of Miyazaki classics like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, where there are no bad guys, only bad moments. It occupies a more adult place, where life lessons are frightening and hard-won. But it implies—with passion, humor, heartbreakingly lovely animation, and no preaching—that the hurdles make those lessons all the more worth learning.