Spirited Away (Region 1 edition)

Starring: (English version): Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, David Ogden Stiers, Michael Chiklis
Walt Disney Home Video
RRP: $29.99
Certificate: PG
Available now

The most successful Japanese film ever - it took over $200m before its release in the US - tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who, with her folks, accidentally stumbles into the invisible world of the spirits. When her parents are turned into pigs for eating the deities' food, Chihiro must take work under the greedy witch Yubaba, at the bathhouse where the Gods come to rest from mankind - and hope that she can find a way to get her family home...

Over here in the US, Disney has just released a magnificent DVD edition of a fabulous animated feature. But my advice is, however tempted you may be, don't buy it. At least, not yet.

Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has won immense status among animators over the last 20 years or so. More recently, his profile has been raised among mainstream audiences by the international releases of his 1997 epic Princess Mononoke and now this even greater work Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi).

The newer film reaches UK cinemas this autumn, via the good graces of Optimum Releasing, in an English-language version overseen by two near toon titans themselves: John Lassiter (head of Toy Story studio Pixar) and Kirk Wise (co-director of Disney's Beauty and the Beast). But though the Lassiter-Wise and Japanese versions are both on the Region 1 DVD, Spirited Away should first be seen in the biggest cinema you can find.

Miyazaki fills the screen with breathtaking panoramas, populating them with apparently incidental but ultimately vital details and characters. At the same time, while this is essentially a 'family' film, it also successfully goes for big themes - there is a depth and a wit to the movie that again deserve the fuller concentration that comes from being otherwise immersed in darkness.

On the DVD, Miyazaki reveals that he envisaged Spirited Away as a film for 10 year-olds. The plot concerns a girl moving from preteen indolence to understand her inner strength as a young woman - all via an accidental journey into the world of the Shinto Gods - and has obvious links to Alice in Wonderland, something further emphasised by an anthropomorphic cast and a drawing style for some characters that echoes Victorian illustrations.

Yet what makes Spirited Away stand out in the much-maligned 'family entertainment' category, and what has allowed it to attract a much bigger following than perhaps planned, is its refusal to patronise any part of the audience. This is inventive and intelligent stuff.

Visually, the film often explores a left-field surrealism that certainly sets it apart from just about any other kids' movie in recent memory and, indeed, anything else you are likely to see this year or next. Thematically, it toys with ambiguity. No-character is all good or bad - indeed, the behaviour of most characters straddles both camps - and this places the emphasis subtly on the wider issues of discovery and choice.

Such complexity is hard enough to pull off in live-action movies; achieving it as well as Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli do here is astounding. And, trust me, I've road-tested this one on an audience genuinely aged 6-60.

Great work on characterisation is also important and it's successfully transplanted by a strong voice cast to the English-language version. The heroine, Chihiro, is drawn as an very ordinary youngster. By contrast, the twin witches, Yubaba and Zeniba, may sound like something from Planet Vic Reeves, but are in fact wonderfully realised Toby Jug golems. Indeed, the whole range of gods, monsters and servants Chihiro encounters has a great deal more depth and subtlety that the genre usually allows.

Don't be surprised if you get to the end of Spirited Away and find that this combination has actually reached in and touched your soul - it won't just be the fact that this is quite so beautiful a visual experience that could draw the odd tear.

If you cannot wait until Autumn, the two-disc Region 1 DVD is an excellent package. A Japanese TV documentary follows the making of the film, showing how the painstaking production process had Miyazaki and his colleagues working almost right up to the original release date. It also fills in much of the background on what inspired the director.

Other on-disc extras include two US documentaries, one introducing the filmmaker to Western audiences and another looking at how the English language version was produced. Finally, there is an extremely detailed storyboard to film comparison, underlining Miyazaki's own input to the finished product, and 16 trailers.

Best of all, though, are the rich Dolby 5.1 soundtracks in both Japanese and English and a nigh-on perfect 2.0:1 anamorphic transfer - no less than this masterpiece deserves.

I should give this film the full 10, but just to try and underline my point about patience and where you should see it first, for now, it has to be (though I doubt it will make much difference for many) I won't give it top marks.

Paul Dempsey

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