Re-humanizing Toon

The moral of Spirited Away is built into its premise, as two humans wolf down a buffet of supernatural treats and are transformed into enormous snuffling hogs, right in front of their terrified 10-year-old daughter. “They don't even remember being human,” young Chiharo is later told.

On one level, the latest feature from genius animator Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) is a classic fantasy adventure following Chiharo's quest to re-humanize her parents. It could also be argued that the movie's real subject is its setting, a bathhouse for weary earth spirits in a parallel landscape modeled upon images from Japanese folk religion.

As a parable of dehumanizing greed and redeeming generosity, the film reflects the ecological concerns of earlier Miyazaki pictures such as Nausica and Mononoke, but in this fairytale variation, all objects and occurrences have their own animating spirits, hard-working demons who need a place to unwind after a hard day's work behind-the-scenes. The crowd at the bathhouse is a huge, friendly, chattering throng of giant, lumbering birds; comic-relief frogs; and majestic river dragons.

This English-language version, supervised by executive producer John Lasseter (Toy Story) and directed by Kirk Wise, does full honor to Miyazaki's teeming, often unsettling landscape, and to the conflicted complexity of his characters: not a single frame was cut, and the voice casting and performances are uniformly excellent.

Spirited Away was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki; and features the vocal talents of Daveigh Chase, Michael Chiklis, Susan Egan and Lauren Holly. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.

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