Legendary Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus, Spirited Away, was released in 2001. Miyazaki’s animation career at his studio, Studio Ghibli, is rivaled by only Walt Disney, and Spirited Away is a big reason as to why.
Chihiro (Daveigh Chase), a 10-year-old girl, is unwillingly moved from one part of Japan to another, leaving her friends and the familiarity of home behind. During the move, her father takes a wrong turn, leading the family to what is believed to be an abandoned theme park rather than their new home. Chihiro’s parents decide to explore the area instead of turning around to meet the movers and unpack. The park’s facades are overgrown and unkempt aside from a set of stalls offering delicious food as far as the eye can see. Chihiro’s parents partake in the feast despite the child’s pleas to leave the food behind.
Eating has dire consequences, as Chihiro’s gluttonous parents are transformed into pigs. Chihiro, afraid and disoriented, flees from her now unrecognizable mother and father deeper into the park. With this unintended exploration, Chihiro crosses into the spirit world, a dangerous place for humans. Chihiro is at risk of being eaten by the spirits or fading from reality altogether until she meets Haku (Jason Marsden), a friendly spirit who offers to help. Haku explains that Chihiro must summon courage she didn’t know she had and get a job working for Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), the resident money-obsessed boss at the park’s bathhouse in order to escape the spirit world and free her parents from their swine-based captivity.
Unlike many of its contemporaries and successors, Spirited Away is restrained. It doesn’t rely on spectacle, ear-drum rupturing sounds, and immature humor to captivate children—its primary audience. Miyazaki is content allowing his studios’ unrivaled visuals, reflective score, and clever wit to hold the attention of a demographic that is infamous for being easily distracted. Studio Ghibli and its founder don’t make children’s movies, though. Audiences often talk about how Pixar makes movies for adults disguised as movies for children. Studio Ghibli makes movies for everyone disguised as movies for children. Your favorite Studio Ghibli film is probably determined by what you look for in an animated movie, but Spirited Away joins the short list with My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle as the director’s best work.
Don’t let the threat of reading subtitles stand in the way of an animated classic (and the best film of 2001, in my humble opinion). Walt Disney Pictures oversaw the release of an English dub, and while the English dub doesn’t capture everything the Japanese version has to offer, it comes close. The lip movements aren’t the distraction you typically see in English-dubbed anime, and the English cast delivers a faithful performance. Besides, Spirited Away isn’t your standard animated fare. Miyazaki grapples with several of his favorite themes like environmentalism, greed, and love in this coming-of-age folk story.
Hayao Miyazaki’s work will be studied and admired for generations to come. Spirited Away—perhaps the center of that admiration—isn’t just an animated movie, it’s a work of art.