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SPIRITED AWAY (article first published : 2003-07-20)

Three severed human heads that bounce about and get up to mischief. A lad who turns into a dragon. An ocean-skimming ghost train. Scuttling soot ball creatures that eat colourful, star-shaped food.

There's more - a six-armed furnace-tender, a giant baby, a witch-like villain with a massive head, a stink spirit that seeks a bath.

Welcome to the wild, weird and wonderful world of Spirited Away, an epic film that netted this year's Oscar for best animated feature and proves there is a more to Japanese animation that the trademark triangular mouths and saucer eyes of Pokemon characters. By turns amusing and spooky, the two-hour fairytale offers lessons about identity and self-discovery. It unfolds like a surreal variation of The Wizard of Oz and is unlike any other animated film we have seen in recent times.

I'd stop short of labelling it a masterpiece, as many have dubbed it, but there can be no denying the rich outpourings of talent, attention to detail and sheer invention in this film by writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, whose Princess Mononoke, released in 1997, was also widely praised.

The tale starts with a 10-year-old girl called Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase, who voiced Lilo in Lilo and Stitch) and her parents (the voices of Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis) happening upon an abandoned amusement park.

When her parents are seduced into pigging out on food at the park, strange things start to happen, starting with the nightfall arrival of countless spirits, the disappearance of Chihiro's folks and the child coming across a mysterious boy named Haku (Jason Marsden).

Haku comes to Chihiro's aid before she can be turned into an animal by Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), nasty owner of the bathhouse in which Chihiro ends up slaving - and where the ugly Yubaba steals her name. It then becomes Chihiro's goal to find the courage and tenacity to recoup her name, find and free her parents and negotiate her way back home.

En route Chihiro crosses paths with a wild assortment of fantastical characters as she become increasingly brave, confident and adventurous. A record-breaker in Japan, Spirited Away, or Sen To Chihiro No Mamikakushi to give it its original title, tells a complex but captivating story and is a visual treat.

Its flaws, though, are that it goes on too long at two hours-plus, is too often too cluttered with characters and situations and is perhaps a little too scary for very small children, although it should hold appeal for most ages. Rating: 8/10. Billy Suter.




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