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Under the Spell of 'Spirited Away'

Hayao Miyazaki's anime masterpiece sends its heroine on an adventure that mixes images of enchantment and terror.


Prepare to be astonished by "Spirited Away."

Written and directed by one of the world's master animators, Japan's Hayao Miyazaki, this visual wonder is the product of a fierce and fearless imagination whose creations are unlike any you've seen before.

If you're dispirited by look-alike, sound-alike, think-alike movies, disturbed by an art form that seems not only to tolerate, but also to reward a paucity of imagination, you're not going to believe your luck.

That was certainly the feeling at the Berlin Film Festival, where this dark, strange, mysterious but ultimately joyous film so held the jury in its power that "Spirited Away" became the first animated feature in the event's 50-year history to win the top prize, the Golden Bear. It was true as well in Japan, where the film earned $234 million and unseated "Titanic" as that country's all-time box office leader.

As those Americans who saw Miyazaki's previous "Princess Mononoke" know, his version of Japanese anime is quite different from American animation. The style is more painterly, the feeling unmistakably Japanese and the mood, even when it's light, is almost never jokey or cartoonish.

Yet, even for Miyazaki, there is something special about "Spirited Away." It's a heroic adventure story worthy of "The Arabian Nights" with an ordinary 10-year-old girl named Chihiro as the heroine. And it's got a magical air of once-upon-a-time, a fairy-tale quality reminiscent of the unexpurgated works of the Brothers Grimm, where boys can turn into dragons, door knockers talk back and even evil spirits can't go back on their word.

Although likely too scary for small children, "Spirited Away" also manages, in a casual, off-handed way, to teach lessons about the power of love and friendship, the importance of knowing who you are, the corrupting nature of greed and how much is possible for those who believe.

On a more everyday level, "Spirited Away" also shows the potential for dubbing, usually the most onerous of film techniques, when it's done sensitively. Under the supervision of "Toy Story's" John Lasseter, a friend of Miyazaki's for 20 years, this film's English-language version shows the original the best kind of respect. The voices chosen are not strident and the believably colloquial dialogue (written by Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt) was timed to fit the Japanese lip movements and help make this extremely foreign world accessible while conveying critical background information.

The voices have an easier time of things because of the power of "Spirited Away's" facility with wonder and enchantment. It's not only that Miyazaki's inventiveness never flags despite a two-hour-plus length, it's the great gamut the visuals run that is most impressive.

Although it comes to the sweetest possible ending, "Spirited Away" is as at home with disturbing scenes of creatures throwing up as it is with images of piercing tranquillity and purity, like the unforgettable vision of a train gliding to nowhere on tracks submerged in water that could have could have come from a painting by Magritte.

Miyazaki no doubt intended the opposition of these images to have an effect on us. Dream and nightmare, the grotesque and the beautiful, the terrifying and the enchanting all come together to underline the oneness of things, to point out how little distance there is between these seemingly disparate states, much less than we might imagine.

For a film that does so much, "Spirited Away" starts quietly, with a skittish, reluctant Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase, Lilo of "Lilo & Stitch") sulking in the back seat of a car taking her and her parents to their new suburban home. She's unhappy at leaving familiar surroundings behind and not at all mollified when her mother says her new life will be an adventure.

That adventure starts sooner than anyone anticipates. In classic fable fashion, Chihiro's father takes a wrong turn and thinks he sees a shortcut through the woods that will solve his problems. The family ends up in front of a mysteriously beckoning tunnel that leads to what looks like an abandoned theme park.

Wise beyond her years, Chihiro doesn't want to enter, but her mother and father, lured by intoxicating smells, insist the family plunge ahead. Although no one's around, they discover tables piled high with food so irresistible that the parents, suddenly losing all restraint, dig in with savage gusto. "Don't worry," Chihiro's father says between heaping mouthfuls, "you've got daddy here." Then, suddenly, everything goes incredibly wrong, and Chihiro finds herself on her own in this decidedly spectral environment.

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