Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Written by:Hayao Miyazaki, Cindy Hewitt, Donald Hewitt
Starring: Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Michael Chiklis, Suzanne Pleshette, Lauren Holly
Released: December 12, 2002
Grade: A

I’ve enjoyed the recent wave of animated and computer generated family flicks to come from leading Hollywood studios such as Disney and Dreamworks.  I’m referring to films such as Monsters Inc., Shrek and Ice Age.  Of concern however, is a growing problem in that these films are relying on the same familiar formulas and hence, falling victim to the same flaws.  Screenwriters aren’t willing to broaden the horizon because there’s just too much money at stake.

Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki is a leader in Japanese animation.  He established his own production company, Studio Ghibli, in 1985 and hasn’t looked back.  None of his previous films have been released in Australia and our only access to his works has been through video stores.  This has contributed to Miyazaki developing a cult-like status in both Australia and the United States.

Despite rave reviews, his last film, 1997’s Princess Mononoke couldn’t find an Australian distributor.  Finally, the hype surrounding Miyazaki’s work has become too hard to ignore and like a magical spirit itself, Spirited Away has woven its way into theatres this week.  Back in February, the film claimed its highest honour - top prize at the Berlin Film Festival (which is shared with Bloody Sunday).  If you’re looking for a benchmark, previous winners of this award include Magnolia, The Thin Red Line, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Sense And Sensibility and In The Name Of The Father.

So how strongly do other critics think of this film?  Rotten Tomatoes is a leading web-site (visited by over 2.7 million people monthly) that summarises every leading American critic’s review against a positive (fresh) or negative (rotten) scale.   Spirited Away had 114 fresh reviews and 1 rotten review for a total approval rating of 99%.  Adjectives used included “breathtaking”, “evocative”, “enchanting”, “gorgeous”, “imaginative” and “wonderful”.

The film centres on a small girl named Chihiro who is driving with her parents to their new home when the father takes a wrong turn and winds up at an abandoned theme park.  Chihiro wanders off and by crossing a bridge to explore a large bath house, crosses over from the human world into the spirit world.  She is immediately detected but with the help of a young boy named Haku, she learns the ways of the spirit world and can begin her quest to return home and rescue her parents (who have now been turned into pigs).

The story focuses on Chihiro’s adventure but in the background of every scene, there’s an inventive tapestry of animation.  There any many types of spirits and I look at them with awe-filled curiosity - it’s a truly amazing world.  Obviously, the film was initially made with Japanese dialogue.  English speaking actors have been chosen to dub this updated version and thankfully, you can’t tell the difference.

Watching this film reminded me of when I was a kid.  A time when both before and after school, I religiously watched my beloved cartoons.  It’s ironic that another Japanese animated series, Astro Boy, was my personal favourite.  Spirited Away certainly isn’t a leader in animation technology, but it set a new benchmark in animation storytelling.  Glorious!