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Spirited Away | review | dvd | Lollipop
By Chad Van Wagner
Spirited Away is light years from the sing-songy, sugar-coated pabulum that one normally associates with "children's" or "family" entertainment. This is for kids the way The Nightmare Before Christmas or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are for kids. It's unsettling, challenging, epic and multi-layered. And it's not from here.
The film is (supposedly) the swan song for Japanese anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, and if he does end it here, he's certainly going out with a bang. Spirited Away follows Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl who, after watching her parents turn into giant pigs, finds herself in a hallucinatory world of talking frogs, animate charcoal, six-foot babies, and a small cluster of humans who can never return to the other world, since their names have been stolen by Yubaba, an unbelievably creepy witch who looks more like a shrunken head with legs than anything else.
The film is a parable for post-Bubble-Economy Japan, wherein people sell their names for money, thinking cash can forgive all. In Spirited Away, if you don't work, you vanish, and Chihiro ends up working in a bath house for ancient Gods from Japanese folklore to stay tangible, all the time hoping she can save her parents from becoming breakfast.
If this sounds heavy for a kid's film, it is. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the subtext flies right over most American adults' heads. Fortunately, it's unnecessary. The alternate world is one amazing, fantastical element after another, and the simple good/bad dynamic stands up just fine on its own. It's possibly the deepest, eeriest, most unsettling yet life-affirming film of the year. If you thought animation was for children and 35-year-old virgins, Spirited Away will irrevocably change your mind. Hunt it down (if you can. Distributor Disney seems to be burying it in favor of their own bland Treasure Planet.) Spirited Away is financially the single most successful movie in Japanese history, and while grosses rarely if ever find themselves in the same bed with quality, Spirited Away deserved every penny.