Ten-year-old Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase Lilo of Lilo & Stitch) and her parents (voiced by Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis) are driving to their new home in another town. When they stop along the way at what seems to be an old decrepit amusement park they’re intrigued by its strange beauty–and by the wonderful aroma of cooking food from what looks like a deserted stall. They enter to find a spread of delectable delights and the girl’s parents dig in. What they don’t know however is that this food literally was from the gods set before them as a test. The parents failed and are turned into pigs; aghast Chihiro who never tasted a bite runs away. Like Alice through the looking glass she suddenly finds herself in a phantasmagoric spirit world where she learns she must accomplish a series of dangerous tasks in order to save herself and turn her parents back into people. Along the way she meets an assortment of wild characters who both hurt and help her: an old evil bathhouse owner named Yubaba (voiced by Suzanne Pleshette) her henchman Haku (voiced by Jason Marsden) who can transform himself into a wolfish serpent a ratlike cat a kimono-wearing frog and sootballs. Yep sootballs–and they’re cute too.
The actors providing voices ultimately take a back seat to their own characters as the film’s animation is the true star (in fact the film was dubbed into an American version no doubt to lure in those who can’t both read and watch) and the dialogue is awfully trite. Unlike most American animated films this one has no clear good-vs.-evil message; in fact even our small heroine has her faults which is the reason why she’s being tested. She never finds herself up against one single evil force either. The menagerie of characters she encounters are often good and not so good at the same time. In the end it’s up to Chihiro to find and nurture the best in herself to get out of her predicament.
Spirited Away certainly doesn’t suffer from American animation’s tendancy to beat you over the head with the message; the plot here is decidedly less linear and somewhat harder to follow. The story often wanders with seemingly illogical elements to the narrative. The shape-shifting creatures might be a little too imaginative for traditional audiences to get their heads around–it’s like watching someone else’s drug trip. In the end though it’s no wonder Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki‘s Spirited Away has become the highest-grossing film in Japanese history won the prestigious Golden Bear Award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and took home the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture.