It’s a contentious question, and every animation fan will give you a different answer. After all, in a medium as diverse and limitless as animation, how do you pin down one film above any other? Chances are though that one film will hover, if not at the top of most lists, then very close to the top - a Japanese animated film released in 2001 that captured the imagination of audiences around the world unlike any had before. For those familiar with the director and the animation house, it was a new classic from one of the most remarkable filmmakers in the world. For those unfamiliar, it was their first stirring introduction to the imagination of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. For pretty much everyone who saw it, the Oscar-winning ‘Spirited Away’ was an experience they were never going to forget.
Actually sitting down now to describe ‘Spirited Away’ seems almost futile, because it’s one of those films that defies description. On the one hand, it’s a beautifully whimsical and simple story about young girl named Chihiro trying to save her enchanted parents by working in a bath house for the Gods. On the other hand though, it demonstrates a complexity of theme, narrative and visual storytelling that somehow manages to be both above and beyond its contemporaries and wildly entertaining at the same time. That’s not to say that the film is revolutionary – Ghibli has as impressive a catalogue of classics as Disney or Pixar, many of which touch on similar themes and visual ideas as this one. Miyazaki has often explored that transitional moment for young girls growing into young women, their disconnection from parents and the maturing of their relationship with their imagination, but somehow it reaches a whole new level in ‘Spirited Away’ and transcends the traditions it plays with. It’s hard to pin down exactly what does this though - whether it’s the sublime hand-drawn animation, the beautifully realised and eclectic characters, the gorgeous score or the perfectly plotted series of adventures and trials put in Chihiro’s way as she navigates working in the bath house and its bizarre residents. The fact is, ‘Spirited Away’ is one of those rare films where every element at play is so perfectly pitched that actually pinning down what makes it such a breathtaking experience is practically impossible. It is entirely the sum of its parts, even though each of its parts is as deserving of praise as the next.
What Miyazaki also manages to do is make a film that genuinely appeals to both children and adults. I say genuinely because, unlike a lot of American animation that claims to do the same thing, ‘Spirited Away’ manages this without pop-culture references. What it does is tell a story full of humour, danger, tension and emotion that never makes compensations for its young audience but also doesn’t leave them behind. Even at two hours, there’s never a dull moment, never a frame not filled with action or colour or life. Chihiro is also the most relatable of protagonists, a 10-year-old full of faults, constantly placed in physical danger but resourceful and practical when she needs to be. She’s no fairytale princess, but a girl from our world thrown into an unfamiliar one, like Alice down the rabbit hole, contending with witches, gods and monsters the best way she can. The world of the bath house is equal parts magical, terrifying and impossibly cute, so that we as well as Chihiro hold our breath as we turn every corner. The world Miyazaki has crafted is so enormous and complete, but his genius is placing someone so very human at the centre of it.
'SPIRITED AWAY' TRAILER
When I first saw ‘Spirited Away’, it reduced me to tears. It was my first experience with Japanese animation and Studio Ghibli, and I found myself unable to contain how staggeringly beautiful it was, each sublime image fading into another. Nearly fifteen years later, it hasn’t lost any of its power or its magic, and each character feels as fresh and alive as when I first met them. ‘Spirited Away’ is a truly special film, unlike any other, even the other classics it sits beside in Hayao Miyazaki’s spectacular body of work. It is a true masterpiece, one of the finest examples of animation as a true art form and a powerful medium for visual storytelling, and the true miracle is that you’ll hardly notice because of how beautifully entertaining and enthralling every single second of it is.
So what is the greatest animated film ever made? We’ll probably never be able to name just one, but it’s just possible that, if one film was ever singled out as the highest point the medium has reached, it might just be ‘Spirited Away’.
PICTURE & SOUND
We’ve waited a long time to see ‘Spirited Away’ on Blu-ray, and Madman have made sure the wait was worth it. The film looks absolutely spectacular with this beautiful 1080p 1.85:1 transfer, as good as the best restoration work done on the Disney classics on Blu-ray. The colours are rich, detail is crystal clear, and most important of all, a light layer of grain covers it just enough to make the film still look beautifully cinematic. To my eye, I couldn’t fault the transfer at all. (For those interested, the opening titles and closing titles are in the original Japanese text rather than the English translation.)
The same can be said for the two audio tracks, a DTS-HD ES 6.1 Japanese track and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 English Dub track. Both capture the rich aural world of Miyazaki’s film, though the Japanese track does sound a tad fuller. There’s so much going on in this film in terms of sound, and each track captures the perfect balance between all the elements. The Japanese track comes with English subtitles.
By all accounts, Madman have pulled out all the stops for this release, even down to the gorgeous menu design. In terms of extras, the main special features from the original DVD release have been ported over, including the excellent Japanese documentary ‘The Making of Spirited Away’ (41:52), which offers a candid look at the inspiration and making of the film (in Japanese with English subtitles). They’ve also expanded on the alternate storyboards from the original release, this time offered as a PiP track that covers the entire film. New to the release are extras that cover the Disney-produced English Dub, including an introduction from executive producer John Lasseter (1:09) and ‘Behind the Microphone’ (5:42), which looks at the process the American cast went through to match their voices to the pre-existing film. It’s rounded off with the Japanese Trailers (17:47), Japanese TV Spots (3:07), American Trailer (2:42) and French Trailer (1:52).
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