Spirited Away (2001) — Alice in Wonderingland

“Daddy, are we lost?”

Justin’s rating: Yen is a fun word to say. I want some Yen. Look, I found Yen. Yenny Yenny Yen Yen.

Justin’s review: Disney is an idiot. Not Walt himself, although I hear he’s really living it up as an animatronic zombie in EPCOT, but the Disney studio itself. Just like all of Hollywood, Disney would rather play it safe and constantly retread old ground (“Hey guys, let’s have some animals sing again! Papa needs a new pair of bowling shoes!”) instead of taking a risk on something that has real potential. This cautious, beating-a-dead-horse-while-pumping-a-dry-well approach finally blew up in their faces at the 2003 Academy Awards.

Disney had a pretty good year, actually. In the relatively new category of Best Animated Picture, they had two films up for an Oscar. There was Lilo and Stitch (a sole Disney effort), which was funny yet nothing astounding enough to deserve awards. And then there was Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi in Japan), a Japanese import long on creativity and beauty but given scarce promotion by Disney (which bought the rights to show it over here). Against a great deal of odds, Spirited Away took home the Oscar and forced the execs at Disney to eat major stinky crow.

Virtually overnight, Spirited Away went from being shown in perhaps eight U.S. theaters to about 2,000.

Spirited Away is birthed from the mind of insanely talented Hayao Miyazaki, possibly the best traditional animated artist alive today. While we’ve begun to take computer animated films for granted, Miyazaki still manages to put supercomputers to shame with mere ink and paper — his work is that beautiful.

This movie follows in the veins of one of my favorite genres, weird fantasy. You know, when someone from our world accidentally discovers a door, or a bathroom stall, or a magical peach cobbler that somehow transports them to a bold and daring world quite unlike ours. Think Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, or even Labyrinth (although David Bowie’s musical numbers are less bold and daring and more bald and dumpy). The heroine of Spirited Away is Chihiro (Daveigh Chase), a girl who gets trapped in a mystical Japanese land when her dense parents let their curiosity walk them into near certain death.

(In a side note, isn’t it odd that movies equally reward and punish curiosity, depending on what kind of film you’re in? If I knew I was in a horror flick, I’d never walk down that dark alley, but I probably would if I was in a superhero flick, because then I could kiss Wonder Woman upside-down in the pouring rain).

It’s difficult to explain this new world Chihiro explores, mostly because this film isn’t heavy on exposition. I can try, but you’re going to laugh and shake your head in a photogenic manner because this really sounds whacked unless you just experience it on screen. Basically, Chihiro discovers her parents have been turned into nasty pigs (serves them right, dragging their daughter into another dimension without concern for her safety). She ends up working at a massive bath house that services all manner of ghosts and monsters while trying to figure out how to transform her parents back into themselves and get them all safely home.

It’s best if you don’t strain yourself too hard trying to figure this all out. You’ve got a hernia to care for, and I’m concerned about you. Instead, do as I did: Just sit back and feel bewildered and astounded as Chihiro (given a slave name of “Sen”) tries to make sense of it all and stay alive.

The world of Spirited Away is truly magnificent in its oddity, beauty and scope. There’s a wide variety of fantastic critters, from a six-legged boiler caretaker, to dozens of cute little soot creatures, to a cranky baby bigger and thicker than most professional wrestlers. This is also the only film where you’ll see a chunky mouse being constantly helicoptered around by a tiny bird, and your life will be filled with laughter because of it. Dude, flying fat rodents are FUNNY!

Then there’s the world itself, a blending of Japanese culture, magic and emotion. In fact, this is one of those rare films where the soundtrack just stills itself from time to time, to let your senses properly focus on the visual. I took a particular shine to the ghost train (a regular train that services ghostly visions) that would run on tracks barely under the surface of the ocean itself.

In not explaining everything to the viewer, Spirited Away gives a much greater gift: that of a free imagination to wonder and wander about. Sure, you could always err on the side of predictability and go for something decidedly less foreign, but I’d pity you for not having this journey.

PoolMan’s rating: Whiskey tango FOXTROT?

PoolMan’s review: So I woke up early this last Saturday morning and decided it would be a good day to try and melt my brain out of one of my ears or possibly my belly button. I tried staring at the sun, but that just gave me a headache and removed my ability to distinguish my girlfriend from a tree. Then I ate a pound of sugar and a pound of sushi, and that was starting to have a closer effect, but still not the mindbending experience I was looking for. When the evening finally dragged around and someone suggested watching a movie, I thought my quest for insanity had come to an end. That was before I picked up a little gem called Spirited Away.

Oh yes, gentle reader, this movie will crawl around inside your skull, bake a cake, and do a riverdance in a hippo costume before it’s done with you. The upshot is that you’ll probably enjoy it just as much as I did.

Imagine being from, oh, let’s say Bangkok, and having never, ever heard the story of Alice in Wonderland. The first time someone describes a cat that vanishes to leave just a hovering smile, a hookah-smoking giant caterpillar, and the queen of a race of playing card people enjoying a nice game of flamingo croquet, you’re likely to nod politely and start feeling around for the pieces of your exploded skull (can you nod politely without a head? Does bowing the stump of your neck count?). The kinds of suspension of logic required to enjoy that kind of story require you to either have learned it when you were a child, and didn’t have any logical objection to Alice growing and shrinking as her diet changed, or you have to be on powerful narcotics.

Spirited Away is very much Japan’s Alice in Wonderland, and I am very much a young man from Thailand. Having almost no cultural reference points to work from, Spirited Away simply immerses you in the story of Chihiro, an insolent and grouchy little girl whose parents are indeed turned into giant, horrifying pigs because they eat the food of spirits without asking. Chihiro nearly croaks right off the bat because she doesn’t know one of a zillion rules required to survive the spirit world as a mortal, until she’s saved by Haku, a wandering dragon-boy who alternately cares for her and treats her like garbage, depending on where they happen to be together.

One of the problems with this movie, at least, from a North American point of view, is that you have no guidelines to work from. Is there a reason Chihiro can’t be seen on the bridge when she holds her breath? Why does the stink demon turn into a river spirit, and why does the river spirit have a funky skull head and a hundred feet of body? Can Noh-Face enter the bathhouse without an invitation? And why does he go stark raving mad when he does? As Westerners, we at least take some comfort in knowing what a British tea party IS, so when the Mad Hatter comes along and starts singing about Unbirthdays, we understand why it’s strange and funny. Here in Spirited Away, one constantly gets the feeling that there’s a set of rules being broken, but we have no idea what those rules are. (“Hm. I’ve got this foul piece of sludge that the river god gave me. I must have to feed it to the bloated demon eating all the frog people!”)

However, this is not exactly a complaint, just a warning. This movie is also flights of wonderful fancy and fairy tale love, beautiful scenery and captivating music. The characters are as absolutely unforgettable as they are strange, and the story becomes a moral fable about growing up to meet the challenges of an incomprehensible world. Chihiro’s evolution from a whiny, screechy little brat to a composed and brave little girl is gradual, believable, and fun.

Spirited Away is admittedly not for everyone. It certainly wasn’t for everyone in my little movie group last weekend, we had reactions all over the spectrum. But it’s charming, it’s largely harmless, and it’s extremely memorable. Kind of like your first pink elephant sighting. Enjoy… but carefully.

Sue’s rating: Alternate Title: Alice In Wonderland Gets Electroshock Therapy

Sue’s review: After my personal debacle that was Grave of the Fireflies, it might seem a little strange to some folks that I continue to go back to the Japanese animation well. Maybe I have a memory problem. (As I was just saying Mutant Jason the other day.) Maybe— (Wait, not Jason. Is it Jerome?) I have a forgiving nature. Or maybe (Not Jerome… ah, I have it! Jetson! George Jetson. And that dog, Astro? What a card! What were we talking about?) I needed to overcome my fears instead of going through life knowing that my brain was pulverized into a morass of abject horror by a freakin’ cartoon.

Which brings us to Spirited Away — which honestly incorporates just about the same amount of logic and continuity as my last paragraph did. Possibly less.

Imagine, if you will, (cause I know I did) a room full of gifted animators, possibly a large barrel of distilled spirits, and a lot of doodling on the cocktail napkins amidst inevitable giggling and falling out of chairs. (Incidentally, an eerily similar event occurred at Justin’s wedding reception — although sadly we had no alcohol to use as an excuse.) In any event, someone throws out the Japanese equivalent of, “Go nuts, Dudes!”, the animators all scream, “HAI! Brilliant!” and thus are created some of the most bizarre creatures seen on film outside of a Farscape episode.

“But what shall we do with our new friends?” one of them hiccups brightly.

“I know!” the guy on his left bellows. “Send them to a health spa for rest and rej- renj- rejuvnir- to take baths!” They all fall over each other in fits of drunken hilarity. Granted, it isn’t that funny, but in their state it’s the height of absolute comedic genius. This sets off a chain reaction of ideas that can only come from the terminally inebriated.

“Turn the parents into *snort* pigs!”

“Make this one into a hamster!”

“Ah, look at poor copy editor Nomuri over there, blowing chow in the corner. We need vomiting scenes to commemorate this most auspicious occasion!”



And so it goes.

Due to a strange and hysterically funny series of events that I’m too lazy to make up for you — but trust me it would have been a really awesome story! — the cocktail napkin adventures are transferred onto film and marketed to the public to great acclaim and not a little bit of confusion. Then Disney gets involved and things really get goofy. (Pun not intended.)

Now, I’ll tell you quite honestly that I watched Spirited Away over a month before I started writing this review. It took that long to… well, recover isn’t the right word, but it’s probably as close as I can come in the English language. But you know, I liked it. I did. Generally speaking, I prefer a little more sense in my nonsense (Terry Pratchett is my hero) but by the end of the movie, most things had fallen into place. Kinda sorta. And you can’t beat the quality of this animation. You really can’t.

Just ask copyeditor Nomuri. Give him a few aspirin too while you’re at it.

Didja notice?

  • Michael Chiklis as the voice of Chihiro’s dad in the English version… Clare should be happy
  • Daveigh Chase (Chihiro) also does the voice of Lilo in Lilo and Stitch
  • When Kamaji bangs the wheel to alert the Mushi-balls, a chopstick clearly falls down from the bowls. However, when he is cleaning off the dust only a minute later, there are two chopsticks again.
  • Chihiro’s parents’ car is parked facing into the tunnel. There is no space for it to turn, but it drives off as if having done an U-turn.
  • How exactly did she give birth to a baby that big without exploding?
  • Every guy in Japan is secretly a dragon. It’s no big secret.
  • The bouncing green head dudes may very well be my favourite characters in the movies, ever. Oy oy oy.
  • The soot things dropping the coal after seeing Chihiro carry one is priceless.
  • How long were they in the other world? The car is covered in leaves, and the interiour is dusty.
  • The effects of the water throughout the movie are unbelievably great.
  • They make a big deal of the magic hair band that will protect Chihiro, but it never does anything except glitter at meaningless times. Why is that?
  • Similarly, after Chihiro nearly forgets her name, Haku makes a big deal about keeping her goodbye card close at hand. Not only does she never bring the card out again, she never forgets her name, even for a second! [Mia N. replies: “In the movie, at least the dubbed version I saw, she forgets her name once. It was when she was talking to her pig-parents and she was really upset. She called herself ‘Sen’.”]
  • Zeniba? Ah, she must be Zoot’s identical twin sister, Dingo.
  • Three of Miyazaki’s director trademarks are: pigs, gorging on food and flying. All of these are in Spirited Away. They’re also in Porco Rosso! Who knew?

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