Spirited Away
***.6 GM
Starring: Daveigh Chase, Susanne Pleshette, David Ogden Stiers, Michael Chiklis, Jason Marsden, John Ratzenberger, Lauren Holly, Susan Egan

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I have a complex relationship with anime. I've always been a sucker for cartoons, and as a youngster, I watched a lot of Voltron and Tranzor Z, which featured Japanese-style animation, and I loved Transformers, which originated in Japan. By all rights, I should be an anime freak, since a lot of Japanese cartoons are based on huge fighting robots and cool-ass sci-fi shit. Yet I've never had much of a desire to watch the mainstays like "Akira" or "Ghost In The Shell," the films that everyone tells me are "the bomb, A-Number-One." Something about anime bothers me on a visceral level. I don't know if it's the frighteningly huge eyes or the horrible dubbing jobs or even just the frequent use of it in twisted pornographic ways that you come across at Nerd Conventions or the skanky back rooms of comic shops. I just know that it tends to make me grimace and stick my tongue out. That's why I let "Princess Mononoke" pass me by when it came out a while back.

However, I had heard so much good about this film that I had to honestly examine my issues and try to figure out why I had any reluctance to see a cool-ass non-kid-pandering lushly animated film. Hayao Miyazaki, who apparently had an entire film of his bastardized into some Disney debacle, has apparently been compensated enough to work with them again, as they're distributing the film for him since they've apparently forgotten how to make quality animation themselves. This guy has been so universally praised and deified that I said "Ya know what, I should probably check him out, get the scoop and the poop." Perhaps I just thought that.

Anyway, turns out this guy's pretty good. The story is thus: A kid named Chihiro, moving to a new town with her parents, gets sidetracked with them as they lose their way and find themselves at an abandoned theme park. She's dead set against going in there, but her dad's curiosity drives them onward, and when they discover fresh food seemingly prepared by no one, her parents settle down and start chowing... and that's when things get weird. Chihiro wanders off, sees a fantastic bath house, wanders back and finds her parents have turned into pigs. She's suitably freaked out, until she runs into a boy named Haku that coaches her, helping her realize she's stumbled into a weird alternate universe in which the bath house is a place where weary spirits go to replenish themselves, and now Chihiro's got to toil away there in order to figure out a way to save her parents and escape, which is the opposite of what Yu-Baaba, the enormous old witch that runs the place, has planned for her.

Holy crap, if you wanna make something freaky, an old hook-nosed woman with a gigantic dome will do it - and when she can wrap a cloak around half her face and turn into a bird with just her eyes, huge nose and wicked grandmother bun visible... ye GODS, is it disturbing.

There is also a giant baby.

It's a beautiful film, full of elaborate and twisted characters - my personal favorite being the three green bouncing 'yurp'ing heads that are given absolutely no explanation, which makes it that much better. I kept laughing at them every time they showed up. Chihiro is a very realistic kid that has to go through a lot of abuse and hardship before she stops crying at the drop of a hat about her predicament. Her reactions are very human and she eventually starts getting the hang of things so well that she can make some rather interesting conclusions about things - thanks to the help of Haku, Khamaji, the multi-armed boiler-room-man, and Lin, her cynical mentor on the job who eventually takes a shine to her.

It's also a pretty funny film. Aside from the aforementioned comical bouncing heads, the giant baby provides constant laughs because it's a GIANT BABY, the visit from the stink spirit is pretty good as well, and ya gotta like the fact that, during important exposition, the focus of the film is on a fat mouse and a weird bird thing talking to little animated sootballs and goofing around. That makes for some comedy.

While I can't say I was completely blown away by it, I was pretty taken with it - a complex world as the backdrop for a very simple story, wonderfully rendered and just generally spreading happiness around, even with creepy shadow characters like No Face floating about. It's very much an "Alice in Wonderland" type of story made a bit more contemporary, and the translation from Japanese to English, while awkward in rare instances, generally works rather seamlessly, as opposed to a lot of horrible language overdubs that you see from time to time. I would be curious to see it subtitled, though, rather than dubbed over by famous people, just to see if there are any story shadings that had to be cut out for the sake of matching the mouths of the characters.

Check this one out - it should make ya feel good.

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