In Good Spirits

Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated film is a visually appealing tale with an engaging story.

I recently took a few weeks off from reviewing to act as an advisor to the various Hollywood studios. Thus, it's thanks to me that in upcoming months you'll be seeing such films as Minority Report 2: My Big Fat Greek Minority Report; Hannibal Lecter: The Flossing and sure-fire hit XXX II: 32.

Having given America what it so desperately needs, I then betook myself to the latest cinematic outing from Japan, because if there's anywhere on earth that's more America than America, it's Japan.

Only Japan rivals the U.S. in the exportation of junk culture, pointless plastic tie-in products, and wastefully packaged miniature figurines. With this kind of pedigree, it's only a matter of time before Japan follows our lead, turns into a rogue nation, and starts randomly attacking any country that has a beef with Junichiro Koizumi's dad.

In preparing for their eventual world domination, Japan has sent us a charming, animated fairy tale, familiar in its story elements and otherworldly in its imagery.

Spirited Away starts with Chihiro, a shy 10-year-old girl, slumping in the backseat of her parents' car as they drive her to her new home in a town far from where she grew up.

Stopping along the way, they follow a weedy trail into what they think is a beautiful abandoned theme park. Famished, her parents happen upon plates of steaming food, and start pigging out.

Well, anyone who knows anything about fairy tales knows that if you've entered what could well be a magical realm, you shouldn't eat the food. Having disobeyed the standard Persephone clause, her parents find themselves literally transformed into immense hogs.

This leaves Chihiro in a bit of a pickle, because, being a bit frightened of strangers, she's not quite prepared to ask the enormous spirit monsters who are now swarming about her if maybe they would lend her a hand.

Now, the cool thing about Japanese spirit monsters, which are basically the equivalent of the ogres, dwarves, fairies and lecherous clergymen more commonly found in Western children's stories, is that they look radically non-human.

Giant radish creatures mingle with colorful, bell-shaped entities and frog-like servants in this strange world. They all look kind of like what Hello Kitty would look like if she wanted to cook you and eat your liver.

Avoiding that fate, Chihiro befriends the only human-looking entity she finds, a handsome young man named Haku. He tells her that her only hope is to steal into the giant Bathhouse of the Spirits and ask for a job.

While this sounds like the set-up for a gay porn film, it's actually an opportunity for the shy Chihiro to come into her own. Charmingly, she is so unused to talking to strangers that she just shouts her requests at whomever she can find. Eventually, a kindly spider-monster sends her to the evil and truly weird-looking witch Yubaba, who runs the bathhouse, and Chihiro is given a job in exchange for ownership of her name.

While Spirited Away is ostensibly a children's movie, most children raised on the lukewarm pabulum of watered-down fairy tales common in the West might find this scene a bit frightening. Good. It's a scary world, and it's time your 9-year-old got used to that idea.

In fact, the scariness serves a purpose here. It's by confronting her fears that Chihiro grows out of her childish dependence and shyness. As she meets more people at her new job in the bathhouse, she learns to make friends on her own. It's easy here to see the psychological parallel to the opening story about how she was frightened to be moving to a new town.

The fantastic imagery and wild doings inside the bathhouse mask the simplicity of this interpretation, and should prove more than entertaining enough for parents. As for the kids, they'll be rapt. Chihiro's story is engaging and gorgeous, full of a consistent, magical logic that informs Chihiro's quest to regain her name and redeem her parents from their porcine state.

The only down side to Spirited Away is that the beginning is a bit dull, but once the spirits start rolling in it's pure gold, especially for the 12-and-under crowd.

The voices have all been dubbed into English, which, if you ask me, is the way to go. I always thought it was ridiculous to see a cartoon with subtitles (as so many of the Japanese cartoons imported to these shores have been). I mean, it's a cartoon: Their lips don't match what they're saying anyway. Why screw up the visuals by streaming text across the bottom of the image?

All the English voices work extremely well, especially Daveigh Chase as Chihiro. Parents might recognize the voices of Suzanne Pleshette, Lauren Holly, Michael Chiklis, John Ratzenberger and David Ogden Stiers amongst the monsters, spirits and sprites. And if you're an adult but not a parent, and you remember such fairy tales as East of the Sun and West of the Moon or Iron John or Hansel and Gretel or any story where children are left in a magical other-world to learn to grow up, well, just borrow some kids and go see this movie. Believe me, you'll enjoy it much more than such recent "adult" fare as Austin Powers 4: 90 Minute of Urinating on Dogs or Steven Spielberg's Inflated Sense of Self: The Motion Picture.

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