This fall, if you're lucky, you'll lay down money to follow an awkward child into a magical world overflowing with zany characters, slimy monsters, and horrid villains. Amid gaggles of ghosts and without parental support, the prepubescent hero forges a family of new friends. The youngster's courage and compassion are tested in labyrinthine struggles against a wily wizard. In fact, every scene introduces some wondrous creature or invention, and each plot twist veers into territory that's thrillingly unexpected yet deeply pleasing. The hero isn't Harry Potter. Her name is Chihiro, and her movie is Spirited Away, which marks the return of Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki.
Miyazaki's last movie was Princess Mononoke, an epic eco-fairytale that did record-breaking box office in Japan and so exhausted the then 56-year-old director that he retired. It was released in the U.S. in 1999 by Disney to a rousing take of less than $3 million. A mystical fable of environmental degradation and renewal, Princess Mononoke is animation for adults, and you could say it never found its audience. But for me, its cool reception here stemmed from its polemic. Awesome art notwithstanding, Princess Mononoke felt like a spike hammered slowly into my skull. Yes, yes! I wanted to scream as deeper forest fell to grimmer machines. Nature good, industry bad!
Meanwhile, Disney's video release of Miyazaki features from the Eighties has left a generation of kids and parents savvy to Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Just as ceaselessly imaginative, gorgeously animated, and efficiently lively as Princess Mononoke, these are films bent on joyful play. If the tribulations of the apprentice witch in Kiki's Delivery Service are meant to critique the workday grind, the viewer hardly notices the medicine going down amid all the magical motion (including much flying on brooms, for those who must have their Quidditch).
Miyazaki was apparently inspired to return to filmmaking by the 10-year-old daughter of friends, and Spirited Away aims to enchant that demographic. It opens on a sullen Chihiro (voiced in the English version by Daveigh Chase) being carted to a new home by obstinately cheery parents. The trio makes an unscheduled stop in front of a dismal tunnel, into which the parents (voiced by Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis) venture--to Chihiro's irritated dismay. They walk out to what seems to be an abandoned amusement park and begin exploring, Chihiro hanging back stubbornly in a way that parents will recognize and kids will find justified by the events that follow.
When food appears, the parents fall to it without hesitation--and are transformed into snorting pigs. Whoops! Chihiro is left alone, as twilight advances and shadows begin to cluster in the streets. Her way back to the tunnel is suddenly blocked by a limitless lake. The family has wandered, it turns out, into a kind of mystic sanitarium, where spirits and gods may be fed and bathed--for a price. Humans are not welcome, Chihiro is told by a boy who becomes her guide. But if she goes to the bathhouse and gets a job, she may survive to free herself and her parents.
The boy is Haku (Jason Marsden), and Chihiro will later save him. In her efforts to get a job, Chihiro meets the spidery, frightening boiler-room attendant Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers), who is impressed by her spunk and eventually befriends her. She also meets the queen of the spirit spa, Yubaba (smoky-voiced Suzanne Pleshette), a witch with a vast head and a vaster baby. Yubaba provides the job, while removing Chihiro's name and memory. If not for Haku's reminders and her own determination, Chihiro would become just another dull worker in the bath factory--and her parents, grist for the spirit mill.
This is wildly playful stuff, and it gets wilder. (Let's just say that Yubaba has a twin sister.) Even better, the characters, for all their bizarre specificity, feel rooted in archetype: the giant-faced mother, the multi-legged basement creature, the lost boy, and the adventuring girl. Better still, Miyazaki adopts and adapts fantasy archetypes: In two Beauty and the Beast scenarios, Chihiro rehabilitates an avaricious monster and washes out a scummy "stink demon"--who, beneath the oil and garbage, is really a powerful river god.
The latter scene takes animated action to a new high: It's so perceptive about weight and gravity and human gesture that it could school Blue Crush. At the same time, the river god's predicament sings an environmental elegy that sneaks underneath the cynical skin. The whole thing is chewy. Miyazaki seems to have distilled the towering topics of Princess Mononoke into crunchy, pastel vitamins the shape of animals: Swallow them and they work deep inside, triggering and interrogating memory.
These vitamins aren't made to address obvious ailments: There's no three-point agenda here that I can find. Curious, I went to the Web and looked for themes that others had discovered in Chihiro's journey. They ranged from spiritual enlightenment to conservationism, from individual self-discovery to the cultural importance of words. Spirited Away encapsulates all those meanings and more. It creates an Oz for the 21st Century, an Alice in Wonderland for an age riven with rabbit holes. (And in Japan, it beat Titanic to become the all-time box office champ.)
Within my own set of meanings, I come back to the haunting presence of water, whose significance really becomes obvious in the second half. Chihiro takes a train ride out over the limitless lake. The color and drawing are marvelous: I fell into a wondering swoon. Outside the train windows, Chihiro glimpses neon signs, a girl her age, and dark hunched figures who recalled for me the shadows of bodies burnt onto walls when the bombs flashed in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I don't think it's coincidence that Spirited Away, for all the wide anime eyes, looks more "Japanese" than any other Miyazaki film I've seen. This is art about memory, about the importance of pulling our baggage up from the watery depths and remembering what has been done to us--what we have done. For, like Chihiro, we are in danger of moving on so often and at such speed that we forget ourselves.