Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away is the biggest hit in Japanese movie history--numbers two and three are Titanic and Miyazaki's last film, Princess Mononoke. It'll be interesting to see if this new animated adventure crosses over with American children. For starters, it's two hours long and the film features a complicated plot, and a large cast of subtly drawn, frequently shape-shifting characters. In other words, it's a children's film that has more sophistication than many nominally adult films that come from Hollywood.
Part Alice in Wonderland, part Wizard of Oz but mostly pure Japanese imagination, Miyazaki's new film tells the story of an intelligent but not particularly fearless girl named Chihiro, whom we meet as she and her parents are moving to a new home. Her too-confident father takes a wrong turn and the family ends up exploring an abandoned theme park. After her parents are removed from the scene-- in comically Homeric fashion--poor Chihiro is left to fend for herself in what turns out to be a sort of supernatural bathhouse.
Chihiro's subsequent adventures are a marvel of a free-floating imagination, the creation of an artist who hasn't lost touch with his inner 10-year-old. Spirited Away takes its time getting to its conclusion--there are many scenes that linger, just for the sheer beauty and amazement of it, despite not serving any immediate narrative function.
In a sharp contrast to the rather cold, literal-minded tendencies of present-day computer-animated films like Ice Age and Monsters Inc., Spirited Away exults in the flights of imaginative fancy that we associate with the heyday of American animation, from Fantasia to Bugs Bunny. In an age when most American animated films come pre-sold with Happy Meals and action figures, Spirited Away takes us back to the pleasures of innocent wonder. --David Fellerath