Spirited Away is quite simply one of my very favorite films. The story is hardly revolutionary. It tells of Chihiro Ogino (Daveigh Chase), a ten-year-old girl upset that her family is moving to a new home. On the way, her father (Michael Chiklis) takes a wrong turn. They stop to investigate an abandoned theme park, and while exploring, Chihiro’s parents eat food they find displayed at one of the concession stands which upsets the local spirits. Trapped in a strange new spirit world, Chihiro must overcome her fears and find a way to save her parents. In this way, Chihiro is reminiscent of many of the heroines of children’s stories and belongs in such honored company as Wendy Darling, Dorothy Gale, and Alice.
While this story may not be revolutionary, that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Chihiro navigates real and permanent dilemnas, which are, of course, simply metaphors for the struggles of growing up. She faces separation from her family, hardships at work, the frightening prospect of having to be open to a first love (and the attendant sacrifices that might mean), and even receiving a new name (a struggle unique to women – at least in American society). These metaphors are dramatized in a unique and interesting world filled with spirits, monsters, anthropomorphic beasts, and living paper dolls – all of which are animated in beautiful and strange detail. There are innovations in animation here, settings and people appear to be animated separately and stitched together (somehow) in a way that permits the film to dramatize motion and confusion in ways I haven’t seen outside of Stuido Ghibli productions.
The voice cast is terrific. Chase, already a veteran of voice acting having previously voiced Lilo in Lilo & Stitch, provides a standout performance as Chihiro. The rest of the cast includes, in addition to Chiklis, Lauren Holly, Pixar utility player John Ratzenberger, Tara Strong, and Jason Marsden. Their talents help elevate this material.
On this second viewing, I was struck by something that I think I overlooked before (though I can't say for certain since my esteemed cohost failed to post the original Void Zone Podcast Review). Spirited Away is set to a relatively simple score consisting of almost exclusively a piano track. It’s beautiful. It’s simple, and it complements the film’s tone perfectly.
If there is a lasting value to me from my time as a contributor to A Review too Far or The Void Zone Podcast (other than the friends I made along the way), it is that through those shows I was exposed to the work of Hiyao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I have loved watching films like Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, and, most especially, Spirited Away. I can think of no higher praise for Spirited Away, so I will just say that it is exactly the kind of classic film I was looking for when I began this project. It’s one of the best films I reviewed with Nick and Brit in my 18 months on the shows, and it is one of my favorite films that I have reviewed in my survey of the Best of the 2000s.
Spirited Away finds itself on this list because eight of the 37 critics surveyed agree with me and listed it among the best films of the first decade. It also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003, and went on to be declared the 4th best film of the 21st century in a poll of critics released a few weeks ago by the BBC.
For those of you watching along, my next film has me returning to Middle Earth to review The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
From Out in the Void,Steven