High Spirits

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Most movies are the crudest of transportation devices: clown cars for idiot laughter, stock cars of bloody revenge. Not often does a film truly transport viewers outside themselves — or deep inside. One such precious vehicle is Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, which has shown its class and mass appeal by winning the top prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival and by becoming, in the first 25 days of its release, the all-time top box-office hit in its native Japan. Now this delectable treat from the world's most revered master of animation (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke) is ready to dazzle American audiences in dubbed and subtitled versions. Climb in, and like the film's young heroine, you are bound to soar.

In the backseat of the family car, Chihiro, 10, thinks her life's job is to parry her parents' every wish. On a detour, the three discover what Dad calls "an abandoned theme park." He and his wife stop at a desolate restaurant to scarf down some food, while Chihiro goes wandering in the park. When she returns, she is shocked to find her parents have turned into swine. (We later learn they were bewitched because "they ate like pigs"; at this theme park, you are how you eat.) The frightened Chihiro realizes she is a prisoner in a sort of ghost spa — a Bathhouse on Haunted Hill — where she must tap unused reserves of courage and ingenuity to escape. She will discover that growing up means more than saying no.


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Like Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy Gale in Oz, Chihiro is both amazed and troubled by the kingdom in which she is a captive. The bathhouse, which welcomes tired ghosts from the far reaches of the spirit world, is run by Yubaba, a wicked queen with a huge head; she seems inspired by Tenniel's drawings for the Alice books. Her dauphin is a gargantuan baby boy ("Play with me, or I'll break your arm!" he squalls to Chihiro); her enforcers are three severed heads that follow her like bowling balls with a grudge. But as in the best fantasies, Spirited Away creates a fully imagined world: hundreds of critters, each with a distinct personality, populate the descending circles of this teeming dictatorship.

In the boiler room, Kamagi, a six-armed troll, keeps stern watch over dozens of soot-ball slaves — cute vermin, thrilled when Chihiro shows up to lighten their work load. Ren, a scrubwoman, offers Chihiro the weary wisdom of the eternal underclass. The child's best hope for fleeing Yubaba on the undersea railroad is young Haku, a boy who can take on the shape of a dragon. When Chihiro and this beautiful beast take to the sky, they express the most elevated forms of teamwork and puppy love.

The animation here doesn't boast the meticulously rendered character expressions of the early Disney features. Nor does it go for the slam-bang effects of Shrek and the other canny computerized cartoons that have dominated the box office. Instead, Miyazaki goes for — and gets — the big picture, the grand emotion, one spectacular set piece stacked on another in brilliant colors and design. There's not a more impressive sequence in recent movies than the arrival at the bathhouse of a huge, amorphous river-god, encased in centuries' worth of stink and sludge, whom Chihiro has the daunting task of giving a sturdy wash and scrub. It's a visual aria, whose suspense is topped only by the scene's surprise payoff.

Artful but not arty, Spirited Away is a handcrafted cartoon, as personal as an Utamaro painting, yet its breadth and heart give it an appeal that should touch American viewers of all ages. Our advice to parents: Take the kid. And for an enthralling two hours, be one.