Spirited Away is the type of movie that begins the usual way: children are crying, trendy teenagers are talking on their cell phones, and adults are politely fidgeting in their seats. But the movie ends differently than anything I've seen in years: everyone is smiling. It's as though the children and adults, the trendy and the out-of-date, the simple and the complex, have attained a common denominator of wisdom.
Admittedly, a movie theater is a strange place at which to find wisdom. But Spirited Away is an unusual picture, unlike almost any movie before it, and for that reason alone it deserves to be considered a masterpiece. But unlike other artistic masterpieces in the visual arts or music, this film manages to work its magic on a wide audience. Anyone can see Spirited Away and be transported.
One of the reasons for this is the film's young heroine Chihiro. We first discover her lying in the backseat of her parents' car with that deep, almost primal boredom that children are capable of experiencing when they're caught up in events that they don't like. She's moving with her mother and father to a new town, and even though she is animated, it's clear from her facial expressions and body language that more is at stake. Her parents now expect her to grow up and deal with change.
All of this is conveyed in just a few minutes of film. But the animator behind Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki, is a master at conveying character and emotion. These are not ordinary people - they aren't even actors. What Miyazaki has achieved through his animation is a heightened reality in which the truths of art begin to glow with the same luminous clarity that his meticulously hand-painted images possess.
Everything seems mysterious, even in these opening minutes, as though something important is about to happen. And it does. Chihiro's father takes a wrong turn, and the family finds itself at the entrance to an abandoned theme park. At this point in the movie, viewers have to surrender, as Chihiro's world begins to expand beyond her control. With astonishing speed, Chihiro finds her parents transformed into pigs, and tall, wavering shadows begin to manifest themselves in the park around her. Telling herself that she is only dreaming, Chihiro races back toward the park's entrance, only to find her way blocked with an ocean of water, and a boat full of phantoms disembarking near her.
As we watch, these shadows transform into creatures that symbolize the spirits of the natural world. Hulking radish spirits, white and bristling with hairs, trundle into the park's bath house - now lit and operating - accompanied by mammoth duck-like tree spirits with leaves on their heads. Dozens of these creatures stream by, as unique as the fantastical humanoid creations in Hieronymus Bosch's paintings and as disarmingly recognizable as the characters in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Watching them, Chihiro comes to understand that she is not dreaming. She is alive in a kingdom of spirits, and must work at the bathhouse under the tyrannical rule of the giant-headed witch Yubaba if she wants to see her parents again.
Spirited Away is an endless procession of wonders, as Chihiro explores the world around her. The film continually reveals impossible visions that gently blur the lines between imagination and reality, horror and delight. Some things - like the animated soot sprites that feed coal to the bathhouse's furnace - are charming and comical. And the oozing, pestilent stink spirit that comes to bathhouse for a cleansing is hilarious. Several of the scenes are heart-stoppingly beautiful, such as the image of a train running on tracks just below the surface of a lake, trailing rings and patterns as it streaks towards the horizon where a curtain of rain and storm clouds closes across a landscape of jewel-like colors. And other things, like the long snaking dragon that crashes into Chihiro's bedroom, chased and wounded by paper angels, are scary. But adults and children know that life can be intense, and these moments in the film are remarkable for both their honesty and their purity. Nothing in Spirited Away is gratuitous, least of all its pleasures.
But resting Alice-like at the center of this wonderland is Chihiro. This little girl, who has the advantage of being animated, and therefore not confined to the limits of reality, is entirely credible. She isn't an automatic hero. She's just a little girl who acts admirably - as best she can, and in a way that she'll be able to live with afterwards. It is a delight to watch her mature without growing up. She remains a child who learns to see honestly. And unlike the honesty and maturity that fill Hollywood films, those qualities in this case mean acknowledging and wondering at the spirits that Miyazaki believes inhabit the world with us. But Spirited Away never becomes a hammer for driving home that or any other message. Even the film's final statement is conveyed with such grace and velocity that it's almost weightless.
Ultimately, Miyazaki, who is rightly revered as a genius among filmmakers, has left us with something more valuable than any message. He has created a new world. It is a world in which lanterns bow to you before they light your way on a path; where tears flow upward; where radishes and rivers have spirits. And all of this reminds us that our own world, the one that lies outside of the theatre doors, is full of wonders. Right now, one of the most beautiful of them is this movie.