Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Spirited Away is Perfect

You're 10 years old. Your parents have been captured, leaving you stranded among monsters. And your best hope at surviving is working in a demonic bath-house. So begins a perfect film, 2001's "Spirited Away."

Magic? Or psychotic break?

I recently promised I would review this pic; I didn't expect to follow through so soon, but it's "5 Ones Day," so why not. And believe me, "Spirited Away" is an easy example of "movie magic." Everything about it - the story it tells, the visuals, the score - is film-making at its very best.

Every 3-4 years, Japanese genius Hayao Miyazaki releases another animated-yet-grown-up fairytale. Critical and commercial success (if not always in the US) always follow; the differences are in story and in G- vs PG-rating. The short version this time: a young girl is up-rooted from her home town, then must fight to save her family from a magical world. And it's probably bad for kids 5-6 and under.

"SA" is pretty, engaging, exciting, emotional. I'm not plugging a "sleeper" or a dumb "cartoon" - $300 million box office ($10M, stateside), a 97% score on Rotten Tomatoes from 155 reviews. It's also the first anime to win an Oscar - for best animated picture. Sure, it's a lot of painted images, but you should take this work seriously, as cinema and as art.

When I wrote "film-making at its very best," I meant to the point of intimidation. I was worried about writing a review for this film. Still, I always keep some perspective... Out of affectionate snark, I once called this movie [in "smarmy trailer" voice] "a heart-warming journey through a young girl's psychotic episode."

Everything goes from real to fantastical in half a minute... When you stop to think about it, "Spirited Away" can be a trippy-looking flick - very much like a funny, moving, majestic-yet-quirky "Alice in Wonderland." In Japanese...

Miyazaki has done these tales often - "Princess Mononoke," "My Neighbor Totoro," "Kiki's Delivery Service"... This time, we start with Chihiro in her folks' car; they have just left their old town and are driving to their new home. They haven't even arrived at the new house, yet the grown-ups are eager to move their legs. The young girl is still traumatized by the separation from her old life, but her parents aren't really the type to listen.

Worse still, Mom and Dad have lots of energy. They stroll through an abandoned amusement park, and an empty Art Deco train-station. Then they stumble on what looks like the ultimate food-market. They're such gluttons, they don't even notice if their child followed them. Nor do they wait for any vendors - they tear into the feast before them. And turn into giant hogs.

So Chihiro must really have a thing about new places now, yet she tries to talk the pigs into turning back. It doesn't work, and she herself starts to weaken and "fade" out of existence (think "Back to the Future"). A concerned young boy shows up out of nowhere - he takes her to safety and knows a cure; even better, he's powerful. The kid called Haku just picks her up and runs off like the Flash.

After a brilliant, blurred sequence, he explains the situation: The family wandered into an area full of spirits. By eating the food (and worse, eating without paying), the parents became cursed. If Chihiro wants to return home with them, she must find some place to stay and survive while she and the boy figure out how to break the spell. And Haku, for some reason, seems to know the girl from before...

In truth, the movie is extremely deep and complex. It touches on the environment, depression, greed-as-capitalism, selling out, extreme dependency issues, identity, guilt, gluttony, independence, and self-destructive spite. It does all this while sticking to the universal rule so common to these kinds of stories: a good heart and hard work can do almost anything, even against impossible odds in an impossible world.

I'd be impressed by any picture that tries to include all these aspects in its story. I'm floored by one that develops them all nicely at the same time that it develops its characters and tells an interesting story. Really, this film is almost a miracle. Or maybe it is...

The world of "SA" is also rewarding because of the relative power struggles at play. Although I'll discuss this in a later article, you'll notice that the bath-house owner, and its demonic guests, are at the top of the ladder. All the normal humans are treated equally - sure, they're all inferior, but men, women, and children get the same raw deal. Moreover, they all seem to have adapted to, and found contentment in, their new environment...

Isn't this a sweet poster?

Regardless, none of these qualities will stop you from enjoying what is, at heart, a kid's story. And there's no reason you shouldn't appreciate the wide cast of characters, or Chihiro's journey. She's strong in the face of peril, willful, and considerate of others; a classic heroine. I've often said that Miyazaki is the Japanese cinema version of Roald Dahl; that's quite obvious here.

Personal favorites, barring spoilers: Chihiro's big job, the old woman's office, the birds, the importance of names, Haku's flight, Chihiro first journey to the bath-house and what she finds inside. It's hard to choose - the whole experience keeps you amazed throughout. It's always visually hypnotic, always driven by nifty ideas.

Every frame of "Spirited Away" is gorgeous, bordering on sumptuous. The dialog is neat - it can convey the story to adults or children, and often works to advance both plot and character. It's funny, at times both light-heartedly and with a dark twist. It's 2 hours and 5 minutes of bliss.

I've told you as much of the tale as you should know, really. "SA" is exactly what people go to movies to see. Y'know how watching almost any video can be called a waste of time, while reading a book almost never is? Well, then this is a book, in movie form. Just watch it and thank me later. Or watch it with me and thank me then.

For anyone who hates subtitles, you'll do well with the English language version (although shame on you). Disney realized years ago that Hayao Miyazaki makes A++ animation, and they spent a lot of money on a good conversion. Original language is always best, but you won't get stiff readings or inaccurate translation.

Fairy-tales work by appealing to the dark and light sides of our imagination. Terrible things happen, but light can often thrive in the darkness. Over and again, the same characters or experiences are both bad and good. No-face, Yubaba, Haku... Things are seldom how they seem.

So too, in this story, good and bad track each other. In following a resourceful girl and her impressive will, the audience goes through the highs and lows of an adventure that's often like a roller coaster. And it's an adventure to make you smile (for many reasons) on your worst day.

I was worried, really. Covering a movie as well-made and intricate as "Spirited Away" means I'd also have to include 2 or 3 essays in my review. And that sort of thing results in a long and (probably) boring post. I like this film so much, and I want to do it justice. Certainly, essays have been written about "SA." By offering this litte review first, I'm setting myself up: I'll return to Miyazaki, and this flick, again.

Why aren't you watching this already?

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