Plot: Chihiro and her parents are headed to their new home in the suburbs, but a wrong turn leads them to a mysterious tunnel. While Chihiro is hesitant to explore the tunnel, her parents venture inside and rather than be left alone, she hurries inside and follows them. The path leads the family to a shuttered amusement park, but strangely, some fresh food is stocked in one of the food stalls. Chihiro’s parents gorge themselves on the food and much to Chihiro’s surprise, are turned into literal pigs in the process. She is terrified and confused, so when a stranger named Haku arrives and promises to help guide her, she joins him and hopes to save her parents when she can. Haku advises her to remain hidden for now, seek out a job to keep her safe, and eventually, she will be able to return home. But this new world is unlike anything she could ever imagine, filled with spirits, strange creatures, and colorful inhabitants. Her fear is immense, but wants to make it so she can rescue her parents and return home. But can one young girl manage to navigate this mystical realm, especially when she winds up on the bad side of the woman in charge?
Entertainment Value: Spirited Away is one of, if not the best animated movies ever made, a beautiful and unforgettable experience. Chihiro is a remarkable character, so much so that even in a realm of bizarre characters, she always manage to command our attention. The inhabitants of the spirit world are insanely varied, but never feel like filler or fluff, even minor characters tend to have memorable moments. A simple, wordless elevator ride establishes one of the more unusual residents, but that is just one small example. The movie is able to make this world filled with strange and outlandish characters seem natural and organic, as if such a task is effortless. But as I said, Chihiro is never lost in the colorful crowds, she remains the focal point and is such a well developed character. The voice talent involved is excellent, especially Rumi Hiiragi as Chihiro. She is able to convey the fear and wonder her character experiences, but never oversteps into camp or annoyance. I revisited the movie in the original Japanese version for this review, but the English language track is solid as well. A few added lines of dialogue seem to alienate a lot of fans to the dubbed version, however. I recommend the original soundtrack, as the performances in it feel more natural and I didn’t like the way Daveigh Chase played Chihiro.
The narrative and performances here are excellent, but the visuals also play a huge role in why Spirited Away is such a magical experience. A lot of animation takes us to worlds of wonder and magic, but few have been able to capture the living, breathing essence of those worlds as well as Spirited Away. As strange as this world is, it also feels so real and alive, no simple task. The varied residents cover all types of creatures, spirits, and other unusual inhabitants, but it never feels like just a collection of random weird folks to look at. I love the character designs here, from the soot bunnies to the giant baby to the No Face, my personal favorite, as well as the countless mystical beings in between. This is the kind of movie you could watch a dozen times and still not see all the little details or background elements. As you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, the animation is gorgeous and a pleasure to experience. The computer animation realm has given us some impressive visuals, but Spirited Away is proof that hand drawn animation can be every bit as beautiful, if not even more breathtaking. I can’t recommend this one highly enough, it is a classic of not just animation, but cinema in general. Spirited Away earns my highest recommendation.