Moving away can be a tough situation especially when youre still a child. Your parents probably have a good reason to relocate Changes in the economy lucrative opportunities at work declining property values and rising crime rates But how is that supposed to matter to you when youre being uprooted from your routine removed from the home youve grown attached to and being forced to say goodbye to your friends? Anybody in that situation would be bummed out and Chihiro is no exception sulking in the back of her family car hugging the one reminder she has of the life shes leaving behind a bouquet of flowers. Theres nothing she can do but pout as her family gets closer and closer to their new home but when her wellmeaning father takes a shortcut and winds up getting them lost that sense of worry and disappointment gives way to something far more ominous. At the end of a lonely suspiciously unpaved path past a wasteland of ancient shrines Chihiro and her family are stopped in their tracks by an old statue outside of the mouth of a tunnel. Guided through said tunnel by sheer curiosity Chihiros parents wander through it with their reluctant daughter in tow and what they find on the other end was more than they could have possibly imagined. Thinking the structures at the other end to be an abandoned theme park her parents find a booth of fresh food which they almost immediately begin to chow down on even as the whole world seems to go to hell around them. As the parks true inhabitants begin to make their ghostly selves known Chihiros parents are turned into pigs and the terrified girl suddenly finds herself stranded alone at a bathhouse for wayward spirits and if this unwitting stowaway wants to have any chance of rescuing her folks and escaping this supernatural spa of spooks and spirits shell have to leave her spoiled selfish upbringing behind and grow up fast under unforgiving circumstances. This is only the second Studio Ghibli title that Ive reviewedYes this is the first one Im posting remember I do things weirdly and it couldnt be more different from the first one. To start this film was actually directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself and not by the recently departed Isao Takahata and you can tell the difference from the visuals. Its worth mentioning that in some of Ghiblis films the animation budget is perhaps much higher than it needs to be as there isnt always much going on in terms of action and aside from the obligatory flying scenes some of their work can skew heavily towards realism. In Spirited Away however the animation is just as fluid and lavish but its being used for so much more. Studio Ghibli doesnt really have any bad looking films with even its lesser titles at least being nice to look at but even among a filmography thats full of beautiful artwork and vivid animation Spirited Away still manages to be right up near the top as one of their best looking if not THE best looking titles ever released by the prolific studio. In any Ghibli title youre going to be able to expect a very high visual standard consisting of At the very least Fluid animation graceful character movements expressive faces and highly detailed immersive environments. Spirited Away has all of these but it also adds so much more that helps it to stand out among its peers. The bathhouse as well as the spirit town surrounding it is a huge setting with no shortage of different locations to explore and every single inch of it that were allowed to see is rich with detail and personality. The cast of characters from the main ones all the way down to the hundreds of spirits inhabiting the area are incredibly diverse offering enough unique designs to fill out an entire heres Waldo book and while a ton of them were obviously pulled from Japanese mythology theyre still drawn in such a way that the youngest of viewers probably wont be afraid of them. They also all have their own individual mannerisms and styles of movement that must have taken an unbelievable amount of effort to nail down. Purely in terms of aesthetic and style Spirited Away is probably the most visually identifiable title of the Ghibli canon which is probably why its lived on to become the Studios flagship title. Its hard to say what it is exactly but once you get past the instantly recognizable creature designs of Haku Yubaba and the Noface Chihiro and her parents just have a certain quality that none of Miyazakis other human characters have. Its like a slightly realistic look not so much as to make them look realistic themselves but just enough to distinguish them from more traditionallooking anime characters. Look at any other of Hayao Miyazakis human characters and they most likely have the big eyes and simplistic facial structure that Chihiro and her parents were somehow able to avoid. If this was intentional then it was an especially brilliant move as it adds another layer of separation between Chihiro and the denizen of Yubabas business. Ive seen this kind of design choice in Takahatas work but I cant think of any other Miyazaki project like it. Being that this is a Studio Ghibli production the animation isnt the only thing you can expect to be top notch. The music composed by longtime Hayao Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi is amazing the kind of whimsical fullorchestra score that youd expect to see in a Disney or Don Bluth production. If you think Im pulling that comparison out of my ass then please listen to Reprise and try to get through it without thinking of An American Tail or any heartfelt movie moment when characters are tearfully reunited. Of course thats also kind of my only real problem with this soundtrack As tearfully wonderful as it can be it also feels a bit generic like a lot of its tracks just sound like theyd be from some other movie. Dont get me wrong theyre great and they do their job with the story its just that when alls said and done its just a little forgettable. Even the ending credits song Always With Me which is a charming song with a folksy indies feel to it was just recycled from a scrapped movie that it was originally written for. As for the English dub well my thoughts there are a bit more complicated and thats mostly due to the fact that the sub and dub for this film are radically different creatures. Its a very Disneysounding dub especially when compared to the Disney output of the early 2000s. The adaptive tradeoff can be broadly boiled down to personality vs. subtlety as the new version adds a bit more life to the cast but also skews the dialogue to be a lot more accessible to the average English speaking child. For most of the cast the acting in the dub is really good with a couple of obvious standouts being Jason Marsden in the role of Haku which he knocks out of the park despite sounding nothing like the originaland noticeably female Japanese seiyuu and the legendary Suzanne Pleshette playing the dual roles of Zeniba and Yubaba in a performance thats far superior to the original. Fun fact this isnt actually the late Pleshettes only anime role She also had a small role in Trigun believe it or not Of course there are other surprisingly big names in the cast Michael Chilis and Lauren Holly play Chihiros parentsI dont think their last name is mentioned in the movie but Ive found them credited as The Oginos and Im guessing they were instructed by the director to make them sound like ignorant yuppies because thats kind of how they come across with a few minor dialogue changes and their overall delivery. One particularly weird choice was Susan Egan as the character Lin who sounds uncannily similar to Meg from Hercules Which makes sense because she also played that character. I dont know if thats just how she naturally talks or what but its still such a strange connection. You look at Lin you dont think Hey she probably sounds like Megara And yet youve got the same voice actress doing the exact same performance. David Ogden Stiers a certified Frasier and Disney legend who passed away this year played the role of multiarmed boiler man Kamaji and he did a much better job creating a new performance. And that leaves us with Daveigh Chase a somewhat forgotten child actor who had this as one of her three defining roles when she was still a child Chihiro is one of her signature characters along with Lilo from Lilo and Stitch and the little girl from The Ring and Im sad to say any brilliance she might have shown in those other two roles is lost here. Well okay maybe thats not entirely fair. She doesnt do a terrible job and Im willing to give her the benefit on the doubt and chalk her performance up to bad direction but DAMN is she hard to listen to at times. The original performance by Rumi Hiiragi who was only slightly older than Daveigh at the time sounds a bit too old for her role bringing a deeper register to the character but she also did a stellar acting job with emotion and voice control beyond her years. Daveighs performance on the other hand is mostly full of screaming and lines that sound like they just used the first take each time but she does sound more believably childlike but for my money Ill take good acting over authenticity any day. If youve only ever owned the original Disney DVD then you wont know anything about the adaptive script which ho boy they made a ton of changes when they dubbed this title. Ill be fair none of the changes were so bad they had to be removed in later releases like that disastrous mistake they made at the end of Kikis Delivery Service but it still comes off a little condescending at times. Its well intentioned enough but it goes too far at several points. There were a lot of dialogue changes to put events in a more clear context and add more foreshadowing to the story but adding pig noises to the scene where the Oginos have just started eating the spirits food was a bit ridiculous. Theres more explanation given to certain Japanese ideas with the break the seal bad luck curse scene being a smart and necessary example but I dont think kids need to be immediately told that Hakus a dragon just because we dont see him transforming before flying off and the last words added to the ending come bafflingly out of nowhere. Also it puts a lot more emphasis on a romance between Haku and Chihiro which kind of misses the point of their relationship. Its a fine dub but I prefer the original Japanese. A few years ago I was reviewing a series called Petite Princess Yucie where I pondered the merit of reviewing childrens media. On the one hand yeah kids will watch anything but as adults is it our job to judge the quality of the media we show them? I had a tentative answer for this question but Ive changed my tune a bit recently. As long as its subjectively safe and doesnt contain any harmful lessons yeah kids should be able to watch anything. The Magic Voyage is a piece of shit but I still liked watching it as a kid and Id have bitten you if you tried to stop me. I hate Nightmare Before Christmas but Id still rather let a kid watch that then Coco which advocates how noble a choice it is to give up on your hopes dreams and personal fulfillment just because your toxic unsupportive family arbitrarily says so. Yeah I really hated Coco. But from that perspective Spirited Away is a fantastic movie to show to children as its full of imaginative visuals bright colors and it teaches a lot of important lessons which Ill get back to in a minute. Having said that even if childrens media is safe for its target audience that doesnt exempt it from criticism as adult like to watch that kind of thing too and Im guessing there arent a lot of kids out there reading reviews. You read reviews to see that reviewers opinion and in my opinion Spirited Away is not one of Studio Ghiblis best titles. Thats not to say its bad by any means but in terms of writing it comes up short in a lot of areas. To start Spirited Away is severely lacking in characterizations. One of the reasons that I feel the actors for Haku Zeniba and Yubaba did the best job is because they had the most to work with Particularly with the old mutant biddies both of whom sport deliciously fleshed out identities personalities and an interesting dynamic between each other. The character of NoFace feels confusingly pointless and could have been written out with nothing really being lostInsert Sin Cara joke here and while Lin has a more important role in the story I cant say I know anything about her by the end. The same could be said for Chihiro. She does manage to grow and develop through the story but the change is vague as shes basically just tougher and slightly more wise by the ending. Aside from refusing to eat with her parents it takes her all the way until the third act to start showing agency and making decisions and none of those decisions are ever more complex than do the right thing. Shes a likeable character and you do feel for her you do want her to strive survive and succeed but out of all the things in this movie that might stick with you after seeing it shes just not one of them. Some of the dangers she gets into dont even wind up coming back She starts to fade away which gets dealt with and resolved by Haku and never comes up again. She signs away her name which she remembers again when Haku reminds her but between those two points I couldnt recall her forgetting her name ever being a thing in the story. Like okay I guess thats important but where was it stated that she forgot her name at all? Part of this weakness is probably due to Miyazakis writing style. Ive heard several rumors about the conception of this story like that it was written as a present for Miyazakis niece or that Chihiro was based on someones daughter and while I cant find source information to prove these rumors they do explain a lot like how the story seems to be woven together from a bunch of mismatched morals and fables and how it teaches a lot of small lessons to the viewer and why Chihiro is such a lego brick. It feels like a story that somebody wrote so they could hide a bunch of these lessons underneath the story so a young viewer might subliminally pick up on them. As I said before most of these lessons are good ones and theres really nothing wrong with teaching them but there really doesnt seem to be any sort of unifying theme between them making the story feel like more of an anthology held together with a tenuous thread of a story than any sort of grand fable. Of course theres one more problem with that approach and its a much worse one. Out of the lessons that this film tries to teach youve got all of these important gems like dont be greedy be respectful finish what you start be grateful to those who help you good deeds will come back to you and if you help one person everyone else will expect it and take advantage of you Okay I said they were mostly good give me a break. Anyway the problem with these lessons is that you never actually get to see anyone learn them. Im serious. These lessons are taught directly to us and not to any of the characters. The only lesson Chihiro actually learns is that the working world is hard but was that ever important? I know the pig scene comes to mind but Chihiro already knew not to steal food and her parents had their memories of the event wiped. Most of the lessons are things a character already knows or something completely inconsequential that only the observer will pick up on like the lesson revolving around Yubaba and her sheltered baby. All of this feels indicative of one other major rumor Ive heard about the film although this one has a bit more backing Miyazaki is the kind of storyteller who doesnt like to put story first. From what Ive heard he was still writing this movie while it was being animated and storyboarded which is a distinct departure from the norm but I believe it. Out of every movie of his that Ive seen the only one I refuse to believe was written this way was Princess Mononoke which had a superb story. But Spirited Away feels way too underwritten in contrast and it shows in some very weird ways. I wouldnt go as far as calling Chihiro a MarySue but her flaws are way too simple she never has to struggle in making her decisions and it feels like she was just created to be a role model. Theres also a ton of small contrivances I cant get over like the Boiler man having an extra train ticket or the river spirit just happening to give her an object that would wind up helping her twice or Yubaba just happening to have taken an oath to give a job to anyone who asks. I dont even feel like Hakus relation to Chihiro which I wont spoil as its supposed to be this huge revelation really mattered in the end. Its foreshadowed in some strangely disconnected ways with a brief line from Haku early on being the only really connection it gets to the story and it just kind of winds up feeling random. But hey if you look at it as a story of a girl trying to survive in a perilous situation where both her and her parents lives are on the line its still a fine movie. The pacing is great the story never drags or gets boring and the larger writing issues can be ignored by anyone who just wants to sit back enjoy the visuals and root for Chihiro as she struggles against all odds to save the day and get back to normal society. Also I like how theres no clear villain and theres actual nuance to the conflict. As I said before its not a bad movie in fact its more than competent enough to be worth your time but I dont think it deserves to be held up among the greats Not among the anime film medium at large or even among its Studio Ghibli peers. Could be worse though It could be Earthsea. Spirited Away is available from Gkids on both DVD and bluray formats. The original Disney DVDs are out of print but its still fairly easy to find. A manga adaptation thats mostly just a compilation of still from the movie is available from Viz Media. If Im being brutally honest Im not the biggest fan of Studio Ghibli. Its not that I hate them or anything and its not like I have any specific issue with them its just that it really doesnt appeal to me personally. Im not really into Miyazakis approach to storytelling and while I strongly prefer Takahatas approach it also doesnt always work. There are only about three or four titles of theirs that Ive come to love two of which Ill be reviewing this month but as for the rest Im just ambivalent to them. Unfortunately Spirited Away falls into the latter category. I respect it as a childrens movie but I dont really understand what people get out of it when watching it as adults. Sure there are movies in the Ghibli canon that have a lot less plot than this one are plotless but they use this shortcoming to their advantage whereas Spirited Away is all plot with little sense of character or cohesion and thats worse in a lot of ways. I dont regret seeing it Id be happy to watch it again but I still expected more from it. I give Spirited Away a 7/10.
70 /100
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