by Jürgen Fauth
Even though "Spirited Away" was my favorite film of 2002, I avoided writing a review -- I figured all the superlative gushing would be rather unbecoming. With the release of the DVD, along with two older movies by Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, I cannot hold back any longer.
All three DVDs are double-disc sets with special features including making-of featurettes, voice over footage, and storyboard-to-film comparisons. The quality of the discs, complete with English and Japanese voice tracks and subtitle options, is commendable. The only downside is the introduction by John Lasseter, the Pixar director who was responsible for the English production. Lasseter's admiration of Miyazaki-san is heartfelt, but I don't want to see his hard sell ("YOU are in for a TREAT!") every time I watch these movies. Did Disney not trust Miyazaki's art to stand on its own? But since the opposite -- letting them rot in the Disney vaults -- is too horrifying to ponder, I will take the pandering packaging as necessary evil for the release of these three extraordinary films.
Castle in the Sky
The oldest of the three, and Miyazaki's third feature film, "Castle in the Sky" (1986) holds the most boyish appeal -- airborne pirates, a mysterious flying city, and a pretty girl that must be saved from the clutches of nefarious government agents. Orphan Sheeta (voice of Anna Paquin) and her friend Pazu (James Van Der Beek) are in possession of a magic necklace holds the key to an ancient secret. Even that staple of anime, the giant robot, makes a cataclysmic appearance (the only time in Miyazaki's work). Some of the action verges on the cartoonish, but Miyazaki's extraordinary realism in dealing with his characters is already evident in this fun adventure story.
Kiki's Delivery Service
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) tells the coming-of-age of a plucky young witch (voice of Kirsten Dunst) who is sent out by her parents to make it on her own. Only her fussy sidekick, the cat Jiji (Phil Hartman), keeps her company. Barely able to stay balanced on her broom, Kiki finds a home in a city that combines everything that's best about Europe. Miyazaki's suffusing kindness makes Kiki's adventures winning without being overly scary. Much closer in tone to "My Neighbor Totoro" than "Princess Mononoke," "Kiki's Delivery Service" can be recommended to younger viewers, but should not be missed by anybody with an eye for Miyzaki's outstanding sensitivity.
By comparison to these earlier films, last year's "Spirited Away" is a mature film that I cannot recommend highly enough. As my favorite film of 2002, this Alice-in-Wonderland tale (which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature) still dazzles on DVD. The film tells the story of Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl whose family is moving to a new city. Frightened and worried, she suddenly finds herself in an alternate world without her parents, who have been turned into pigs by the witch Yubaba. Yubaba rules over a bathhouse for the gods, which gives Miyazaki ample opportunity to parade some of his most curious, surprising, pleasing, and just plain weird creatures by us. As Chihiro gains confidence and makes friends -- among them Haku the dragon and a pair of hilarious critters that reside on her shoulder -- her adventures take on a hallucinatory intensity.
The wonders never stop: a radish god who takes up most of an elevator, hard-working dust bunnies feeding on colorful stars, a trio of mumbling, bumbling rolling heads, a witch with a giant head who transforms into a turbaned bird at night--and that's just the first half hour.
Miyazaki's stories are always richly ambiguous, with "good" guys capable of bad actions, and villains who have reasonable rationales and understandable points of view. Kindness and compassion are key values in Miyazaki's works, which never give in to cynicism or cheap tricks. And while there is blood and violence, "Spirited Away" is much less frightening than his fantasy epic "Princes Mononoke."
In all of his films, the quality of Miyazaki's carefully balanced storytelling is matched by the detailed and beautiful animation. I would gladly put up posters of any random frame -- there isn't an image that is not pleasing, well-composed, surprising, and beautiful. His colors, his designs, the attention to detail, the sense of space and weight are unparalleled in animation. Miyazaki's profound humanity and boundless imagination make him not simply an outstanding animator, but an outstanding director, on par with the best artists working in film right now, animated or otherwise.
There. I warned you I'd be gushing.
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