The ‘Classic' Is Subjective, but ‘Spirited Away' Has Proven Itself

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Critics tend to use the words "unforgettable" or "modern classic" quite liberally, even for movies they've seen only once, probably at a press screening a few days before their deadline. I'll admit, most of the time we're exaggerating, making sensational predictions of the future because nobody will remember a review for a movie that is easily forgotten anyway.

Only five months have passed since that glorious night I first saw Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away," but I'm sticking to my initial impression. Folks, this is the real thing. Unforgettable? Without a doubt. Whether it becomes a classic in America depends on how kids respond, which I don't even dare try to predict, but seeing as how "Spirited Away" is the highest grossing film in Japanese history, and how the anime look has already penetrated the sensibilities of the young American audience, it stands a good chance.

From a critical perspective, these 2 hours of splendor and imagination are as strong as anything Walt Disney has ever offered. It's become clichéd to note that Disney is garbage compared to Miyazaki, but the experience of watching "Spirited Away" reminded me of the excitement I got as a kid transfixed by "Alice in Wonderland" and "Peter Pan." Disney no longer makes these kinds of innocent fantasies where children get swept away to worlds that aren't just unexplainable, they defy the necessity for explanation. Miyazaki returns us to this subgenre, and then takes it a bit farther. Although his films are for children, they're complex tales of a philosophical, almost religious, nature.

Fans of Miyazaki, animation, film, or beauty have reason to rejoice. The U.S. release may be dubbed by Disney, but that's a small price to pay for one of the movie events of the year.

Here's a portion of what I said of "Spirited Away" when it was included as part of my report on the San Francisco International Film Festival last April. My enthusiasm, excessive it may seem, still stands:

In the world of anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki, the rules of physics are broken. I'm not talking about gravity-defying acrobatics or time travel, but the raw elements that make up the world. Human beings aren't made of carbon but of vibrant watercolors. The air isn't oxygen and carbon dioxide, but glowing jets of dark spirits and happy ghosts. His films are experiences unlike any other - exhilarating, touching, spiritual. His last film, "Princess Mononoke," which deserves to be whispered in the same breath as "Snow White," "Pinocchio," and for that matter "The Seven Samurai" and "The Searchers," was a powerful expression of man's relationships with his surroundings. His newest film "Spirited Away" is no exception.

"Spirited Away" is about a girl who enters a mysterious tunnel with her parents only to get engulfed in a mythological wonderland of faceless phantoms, a trio of green heads, and a very odd talking giant baby. But it's not just a story of a child trapped in a funhouse. It's about maintaining identity in a hostile world and mediating between good and evil. It's about the exhilaration of being young and the simplicity of love and family.

I can't get out of my head the intensity of the girl's face as she runs to the edge of the horrible fantasy world to find herself trapped by a glistening ocean, shutting out not only her friends and familiar life, but reality as she knows it. Or the sight and sound of her feet tapping the stone steps and the sudden swoop of the camera to expose the enormous gap between her home and her spirit, and the amazing courage it would take to reconnect the two.


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