The name Hayao Miyazaki is one familiar to many fans of animation. The man has been delivering great works of art for years and years now, and is most famous for My Neighbour Totoro and this one, the film that seemed to win him an even wider audience (in my experience). It was certainly the film that introduced me to his magical universe, and it remains my favourite from Studio Ghibli.
The story is all about young Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi) struggling to survive in a world of spirits and fantastical beings. She's out to rescue her parents, you see, because they were turned into pigs after eating food from a stall in an abandoned theme park. In order to get them back to their human state, and get them back out of the spirit world, Chihiro must work hard in a bath house, and must never EVER forget her real name. She is helped by a young man named Haku (Miyu Irino), but there's a harsh witch named Yubaba (Mari Natsuki) who will do her best to make sure that Chihiro fails in her quest.
As inventive, gorgeous and magical as any other Miyazaki movie, Spirited Away once again mixes some dark themes and moments with a child-friendly selection of oddities in a way that shows how attuned the director is to his audience. There's a lot here that seems scary and dangerous, but it's always offset by either the bravery of Chihiro or the cute cast of supporting characters.
The vocal cast all do a great job, but they're lucky to be accompanying some absolutely gorgeous visuals, even by the standards of Studio Ghibli. The bath house, which provides the setting for most of the movie, is lovingly detailed, but then there are the other locations, including the bridge and steep stairway that provides one way to enter the bath house (I know, I know, it doesn't sound worth mentioning, but it really is), that are all just as wonderful to look at. The characters range from the fairly solid and normal Chihiro to the multi-limbed Kamaji (who supplies the work area above him with the hot water that they need), and from the sweet little "black soots" to the large, and sometimes scary, "No Face". Each and every one is memorable and created with great care.
I always feel inadequate when discussing the works of Hayao Miyazaki. There are only so many ways I can try to praise him enough without resorting to displaying a selection of screenshots from any movie that he's involved with. All of his films are made with heart, they all allow for fantastical adventures throughout a cinematic landscape steeped in rich history and culture, and almost every frame could be hung up as a work of art (as cliched as that statement is by now).
While I have never been accused of being the most mature individual in any room, this film really takes me back to the state of mind that I had throughout my childhood - wonder at the world around me, fear and joy as new discoveries came into my life, and a naive belief that everyone in the world had good in their heart. It's good to recapture those feelings, and it's something that Miyazaki often does with astonishing ease.