Last night me and the Mrs. went to catch Spirited Away. It's kind of amusing that it took winning an Academy Award (Best Animated Picture) for it to find some screen time around here. Sure we'll plaster two screens of every theater and coat every happy meal with All Dogs Go to the Ice Age Before Time, but Spirited Away has to be shown at art houses. I'm already planning my trip into DC to the one theater that will be showing Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. Anyway, Spirited Away won its Oscar and I was able to see it in the theater last night.
Read on for spoiler free impressions.
Once again Hayao Miyazaki puts a nervous but strong-willed young girl into the lead role of a world of legends and superstitions. Like in Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro, the protagonist's innocence, determination, and good-natured actions assist her in surpassing the obstacles she faces. This is an Alice in Wonderland story that takes place in a magical bathhouse where spirits come to relax. Humans are clearly unwelcome (mostly, it seems because they smell) and young Chihiro is burdened with the task of saving her parents and returning to the human world.
The version I saw was English dubbed. The casting and voice acting should be commended. The actors sounded as if they were chosen for the character of their voice as opposed to any celebrity they may enjoy in real life. Some of the voices sounded vaguely familiar, but I didn't feel compelled to play "Who's That Voice?" while watching the film. Not having seen a subbed version I don't know how true to the original dialog the English script was.
The animation was remarkable. The background paintings used for many of the outdoor scenes were just amazing works of art. I thought some of the more hit or miss scenes were the ones that used 3D animation. It was mostly used for parallax effect on structures when the camera panned, and they were covered with the same hand-painted textures. Some of the shots just felt out of place, perhaps since we don't expect paintings to behave that way.
Something that I find intriguing about tales from other cultures, and is one of the aspects of anime and manga I find so entertaining, is that they often contain references and even characters out of that culture's lore. These are items that I can only presume are already familiar to people from that culture, but are so completely foreign to me that I'm like a child hearing the legend for the first time. I have the same feeling of awe and wonder. For instance, in Miyazaki's Totoro, I got the feeling that the girls in the movie were already familiar with totoros from stories they had heard. One of them even says something like "just like in your picture book". It would be like me running into Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox, I guess. It would certainly be surprising, but recognizable.
Spirited Away feels loaded with this. As a westerner, I could only guess where the line was between legend and new fiction. The Radish Spirit seemed like it could be based on ancient stories while the main antagonist, Yubaba, may have been a character just for this movie. The fact that I couldn't tell from the treatment of the film is a testament to the filmmaker's ability to create such a believable atmosphere.
End result...the movie's good. No question about it. It warms your soul like some sort of soul-warming charcoal briquette or, perhaps, chicken soup. I think you should go see it. Or buy the DVD when it comes out. Or both. I'll see you at Cowboy Bebop, pardners.