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Spirited Away

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Starring the voices of Daveigh Chase,

Susan Egan, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette

Classification: PG

Rating: ***½

Almost as long as Homer's Odyssey,and made of mostly the same kind of stuff, Hayao Miyazaki's remarkable Spirited Away is quite unlike any other animated film likely to appear in North America any time soon. The most successful film ever released in Japan, and co-winner of the top prize at this year's Berlin film festival, Spirited Away is a complete reversal of the Hollywood way with animation.

While Hollywood's imagination is entirely at the service of creating a crowd-pleasing product, Miyazaki has taken the viewer-friendly animated medium and with it rendered an awe-inspiring work of imagination. Spirited Away has the quality of a dream: It takes you places so foreign and fantastic you have no option but to yield completely to it and be spirited along.

The film starts in familiar enough territory: 10-year-old Chihiro and her family are driving to a new town where she'll be going to a new school, and she isn't happy about it. Somehow, on their way to their new house, the car takes a detour through a forest and ends up at a collection of strange buildings which Chihiro's father takes to be an abandoned theme park. Against Chihiro's protests, her parents start nosing around and find a restaurant, where they are promptly transformed into pigs. As darkness falls, the buildings come alive with dark spirits, and Chihiro finds herself starting to disappear.

Not unnaturally, she panics, but soon falls into the care of a boy named Haku, who becomes her patron and survival guide. As it turns out, Chihiro has stumbled into the strange shadowworld where all the world spirits come to replenish themselves. The central fixture of the place is a huge bathhouse presided over by a witch named Yubaba. Chihiro finds that the only hope she has of rescuing her parents is to take a job as a servant in the bathhouse, a job for which she must give up her name. Things get a little complicated after that.

For viewers raised on Disney product, something like Spirited Away will take some adjusting to. Character animation, as opposed to Disney animation, is less committed to a complete realism of motion, partly due to an aesthetic tradition in Japanese anime, but also due to a smaller budget. Hence, characters sometimes feel like prisoners of their surroundings, which take on a life of their own.

Spirited Away is especially to be contrasted with a corporate entity like Disney's The Lion King, which will soon be on the prowl again at an Imax theatre near you. The Lion King, as with so much animated Disney product, feels completely earthbound by comparison, with its character personalities borrowed from the current Hollywood A-list and its narrative imagination yoked to its collective mode of creation ( The Lion King listed more than 25 writers in the credits).

But Spirited Away is very much a reflection of the personality and the genius of its creator, Miyazaki. It feels like the product of an imagination allowed to wander back alleys and dark forests -- a world no story meeting would dare set foot in. It is also mercifully free of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink toward adult audiences of so many current animated features. The charm of Spirited Away is its breathless sense of wonder and mystery. It is positively wide-eyed in its innocence and invites us to be likewise.

Spirited Away represents a step forward from Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, which opened some North American eyes to Japanese anime a few years ago. Its moral universe is richer, its didacticism held in check, and its imagination more unbounded. Spirited Away gives us Alice in Wonderland via Homeric adventure, taking us to a fantastic place where courage, guile and simple human virtue will help us to get home again. ... Disney and anime. R5