Sunday, May 4, 2008

Fantasy’s Dark Side... for kids! - Spirited Away

It is rare that I travel outside my local sphere to catch a limited release for a movie, but when the opportunity came up to see "Spirited Away" in a theater, I made arrangements and went. This Japanese animated film was created by Hayao Miyazaki, often considered to be one of the greatest living creators of animated stories. His work is immensely popular around the world, but has yet to find popularity in the states. Disney has obtained the rights to his movies and have been releasing them (and others by his studio) in theaters and DVD.

I remember recommending the film "Spirited Away" to many of my coworkers when it came out on DVD. In the end I did get a few people to see it. Some enjoyed it, but weren't as enthralled with it as I was. One person in particular came back to me and said, "That was one F-ed up movie. That was for kids!?"

The basic story goes like this, young Chieko (around 6 or so) is moving to a new home in a different city. One the way there, her family stops at a mysterious, abandoned, amusement park. They find an amazing restaurant with tons of great food, but no one around. The parents start eating, but Chieko is afraid they'll get in trouble. She wanders around the amusement park and sees something startling - it looks like a ghost. She runs back to her parents and finds that they have been turned into pigs. Suddenly Chieko is trapped in a strange world filled with mythical spirits, witches, living soot-balls and dragons. She is forced into servitude by the witch who runs things but is determined to find a way to find her parents and change them back into humans, before they become a main course.

This movie was made with a sense of wonder and love the marvelous and unreal. It is filled to bursting with strange characters. Some of them, like the witch Yubaba, can go from unusual to terrifying at the drop of a hat. Some of the spirits are cute, like the ones that look like newly hatched chickens. Others are just plain bizarre, like the turnip spirit. Miyazaki mixes the weird with the wonderful, creating amazing settings, intense action scenes, and his masterful use of flight. I have yet to see an animator capture the exhilaration of flying like Miyazaki does.

Since the movie deals with ghosts, witches and the terrifying possibility that Chieko's parents might stay in the form of pigs and get turned into a meal - it has a dark edge. I believe that Miyazaki is targeting that age where kids are still afraid to be on their own, but need to begin to feel secure by themselves. They need to know that there are dangerous things out there, but they also need to think on their own and realize that the choices they make affect others. This is a lesson I think some adults need to learn.

I highly recommend "Spirited Away". It has top notch animation, great characters, wonderful music, and solid voice acting for the English dub. If you haven't seen it, give it a try, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. For what it's worth the Academy of Motion Pictures gave the film an Oscar for best animated feature. Some have called it a Japanese take on "Alice in Wonderland" and I can see that - but more along the lines of the original book and not the Disney-fied version.

Have you seen "Spirited Away"? What did you think of it? What makes a film appropriate for kids? How scary is too scary?

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