Standing in line to see Spirited Away at the dollar theater last night, I skimmed a Seattle P-I review posted in the box office window. “Japan’s ‘Spirited Away’ has the makings of a breakthrough” read the headline, with the critic later wondering “Will [this] be the spearhead of the long-expected anime breakthrough in mainstream America?”
Apparently not. If you look at international 2002 box office grosses, Spirited Away comes in fourth, due, no doubt, to the fact that it’s the biggest hit of all-time in Japan. But I can’t even find it on the domestic lists — not even this one which bottoms-out at #150 (but not before listing Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, Juwanna Mann, Jason X, and Sorority Boys).
Which is too bad, because, if ever a film was going to bring about “the long-expected anime breakthrough in mainstream America,” this would have been it. Spirited Away has an engaging storyline, a seamless blend of traditional and computer animation, excellent voice work, and not a single goddamned pony or jet-powered skateboard in sight.
Furthermore, the film opens with what could be easily mistaken for a typical American family: they are recklessly cruising along in their SUV, the father boasts about his “cash and credit cards,” and the daughter comes across as sullen and whiny. They are en route to a new home, but take a wrong turn along the way and quickly [fall down the rabbit hole / travel through the wardrobe / get carried off by a Kansasian twister] and find themselves in [Wonderland / Narnia / Oz].
So, yeah, the premise isn’t the most original we’ve seen. But once the protagonists wind up in the Otherworld, the similarities to traditional Western “through the looking glass” tales evaporate. The parents are soon transformed into hogs. The young girl, Chihiro, is besieged by specters and seeks sanctuary in a bath-house. It soon becomes clear that we have passed into a land populated almost exclusively by spirits, and where humans are as rare as they are disliked. And then the real weirdness begins.
It’s important to realize that, despite the sometimes cartoony nature of the animation and the presence of a 10-year old girl in the lead role, Spirited is decidedly not a children’s movie. For starters, it’s long: two hours of story, with no songs or dance numbers to pass the time. It’s also, at times, frightening, disgusting, and bizarre enough to ensure that your kid has months of nightmares featuring giant, walking, obese turnips. That’s bad news for the many Americans who automatically equate animated films with “kid’s stuff” (pity the poor chump who brought his daughter to this expecting a sequel to Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron), but a godsend to those of us who don’t immediately dismiss the concept of “mature fantasy” as oxymoronic.
Daveigh Chase, the young woman who provides the English voice for Chihiro, is fabulous; this is the first time I’ve ever watched an animated movie and thought to myself “Wow, the person doing the voice work for this character is a damned fine actor.” The music is also superb. And while the foreground animation is of the traditional “big eyes, small mouth” anime style, the backgrounds (landscapes and parallax shifts) are breathtaking. All this makes for a movie that should be seen by anyone who enjoys a good story well told. If I had caught this a month ago, it would have easily made it into my “Top Five For 2002”. As it stands, 2003 will have to be a helluva cinematic year to keep Spirited Away off the top of this year’s list.