Spirited Away (2001)
“(The tunnel led Chihiro to a mysterious town…)”
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Miyu Irino
Synopsis: In the middle of her family’s move to the suburbs, a sullen 10-year-old girl wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches, and monsters; where humans are changed into animals; and a bathhouse for these creatures.
Well now, all those awards can’t be wrong, can they? Well, can they? Well, actually there’s one jury that’s still out on that one, and it’s sitting in my head as I type. This is a good cartoon film, with some wildly imaginative touches, but the deficiencies in the plot are of equally wild proportions, and there is little here in terms of story that hasn’t been done before.
En-route to their new home, Chihiro and her parents take a wrong turn that leads them to what appears to be an abandoned theme park, but which is actually a bath house for Japanese Gods and spirits. Feasting on the food in the deserted restaurants that fill the park, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and, aided by a friendly spirit called Haku, she must toil in the bath house if she is to find a way to return her parents to their former state.
Spirited Away is a big sprawling animation which, in that respect, is typical of the Anime genre, but which manages to avoid the bafflingly convoluted plots that seems to be their hallmark. More baffling than the so-so storyline is the huge amount of praise that has been heaped upon Spirited Away. While the film is constantly inventive it takes such liberties with our suspension of belief that you get the impression that the story has been tortuously moulded around a few innovative ideas and/or characters rather than those ideas arising out of the original story. The parallels with established works of fantasy are obvious: the animation of the evil sorceress Hubaba and her good twin sister are clearly inspired by John Tenniel’s drawings for Alice in Wonderland, while other references include The Wizard of Oz and Brazil. This isn’t a bad thing — Hubaba is a delicious creation, and it is in the animation of the characters that Hayao Miyazaki excels. While the lead characters are bland, others such as the spidery guy with the bald head, bushy beard and shades, the little sootballs, the giant baby, and the lamp on a foot will grab the attention of both young and old. Unfortunately, the story they inhabit leaves much to be desired. Allowing gigantic leaps of perception and rationalisation, we have our heroine recognising a wounded dragon as her benevolent guide Haku for no given reason, and then see her able to recognise the absence of her pig parents in a snorting porcine crowd when previously she had not been able to (perhaps this is supposed to indicate the lessons she has learned on her journey, but it’s a bit of a stretch). No-Face is also nothing more than padding; inserted into the narrative in such a way to suggest that it might hold the key to the entire story, it instead merely serves to pad out the running time and add nothing to the plot.
There’s much to admire in Spirited Away, and it is never anything less than enjoyable but, too often, the deficiencies in its plot repeatedly awaken you from the film’s spell with an abruptness that spoils your enjoyment. It’s a shame, because the potential is there for this film to be the classic that so many people obviously believe it is.
I guess the jury isn’t out after all: while this Japanese animation is worthy of a measure of admiration, it is sadly undeserving of much of the praise that has been heaped upon it…