Exotic and strikingly original, "Spirited Away" is what one could call Japan's answer to the wonderful Alice in Wonderland. And if nothing else then the innumerable awards (including, but not limited to, "Best Animated Picture" Oscars 2002) and the universal critic/audience praise showered on it should prove the film's timeless appeal across age, race or sex.
Powerful in its simplicity, the dream-like story is about a ten-year old girl, Chihiro (voiced in English by Daveigh Chase), whose parents are turned into pigs after they stumble into an enchanted theme park. Thus begins Chihiro's magical journey through an amazing and dangerous world inhabited by strange creatures and even stranger personalities. In her quest to rescue her parents from a horrific life on the farm, Chihiro, on the recommendation of the mysterious Master Haku (voiced in English by Jason Marsden), finds work in a huge and ornate bath-house where astonishing beings come to relax. In keeping with the rules of engagement, you of course have your secondary characters who this time are both winsome and fanciful. I should probably stop right there – I really do not wish to reveal too much for fear of trivialising the noble intentions of the writer/director Hayao Miyazaki. You have to measure the story against your own sensory experience of the lush visuals and whimsical sounds to fully appreciate it.
Watching "Spirited Away" also made me think of a common paradoxical complaint from parents accompanying kids to such animated features. They usually claim that the content in such films is either too childish or sometimes unnecessarily adult. Miyazaki, however, strikes an immaculate balance where children will enjoy and the parents with rejoice. He doesn't shy away from showing heartfelt innocence or ugly menace. Another relevant issue that may be highlighted is that thoughtful animation, unlike recent computer-generated cinematic offerings from studio giants such as Disney and Dreamworks, is not only about raising the bar in technology. It's about reaching out to audiences' most inherent feelings, immersing them in an unearthly world but with a strap of familiarity and most importantly about human craftsmanship. This is the magical animation style I grew up with – finely hand-drawn characters against the rich tapestry of vividly painted backgrounds. It's is indeed refreshing to find "Spirited Away" exceeding expectations in this department. However, the only loose end I would see in the film is the pace of the narrative which is deliberate and slow. This may turn off a few impatient viewers. But, others will relish the remarkable world Miyazaki paints as the story builds to perfect, fairy-tale like conclusion.
There are so many reasons to like "Spirted Away" and then several more to love it. It's exciting, modern cinema - strange and exquisite. This is the stuff dreams are made of. And I cannot recommend it enough. - Adnan Khan