This little fairy tale is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. The title says exactly what it is. The movie spirits you away as gently as a Spring breeze and drops you just as delicately onto the grass at the end, enraptured, dazed, hoping for a sequel that somehow violates all cinematic rules of form by being just as good as this one - a sequel that will never come, and probably should not come, since I remember roughly the same feeling after watching Princess Mononoke. And Spirited Away is much, much better than Princess Mononoke. This movie is transcendent.
You know there's going to be magic, and epic fights and witches and spirits and things, because that's what there always is. So you start watching, and after only a few minutes you see the strange town and the strange shrines and the "short-cut", and you say "A-ha! Short-cut! Now the magic will start!" And the characters walk through a tunnel, and since you've read your Campbell you know that this time for sure, absolutely positively, the magic will start. But it doesn't. Or maybe it does. Or maybe it started five minutes ago. Time moves differently in this place.
And then there are spirits, and dire warnings, and everything that was in the old fairy stories - not the Disney garbage, not the endless flood of tawdry adventure stories pathetically mimicking Tolkien, but the real old stories. And you feel that other worlds, all the other worlds, are so close you can almost hear their music - but it isn't the modern urban fantasy "I am the last Princess of the Sidhe, and I live incognito working in a New York coffee shop where everybody digs my accent, never knowing how close they are to the darkly glittering Other World which I have forsaken" kind of thing, but a story from the old times when people didn't believe in fairies any more except they still left out offerings for them. A true story from a place that isn't there any more, and never really existed at all except as a vision in the mind of an elderly Japanese genius of animation.
People say he is the Japanese Walt Disney. This is a horrible insult. Miyazaki is not Disney. He is Salvador Dali and Georgia O'Keefe and Neil Gaiman and Joseph Campbell, Lord Dunsany and Melville, Seamus Heaney and J.R.R. Tolkien, George Lucas and Akira Kurosawa. And Disney. He's all that and an entire crisps factory.
I don't use the word genius lightly. Hardly any of the artists we commonly label geniuses really are. Miyazaki is.
And Disney wasted the American distribution rights to this masterpiece with the bare minimum of advertising, an extremely limited theatrical release and a DVD release that hardly anybody noticed. Two years late. While disposable product like "Pirates of the Caribbean" - movies based on Disneyworld rides, now there's a wonderful high-concept artistic premise - get splashed into every theatre in America, with promotional campaigns that could fund the entire world's deep-sea exploration programs for the next two years. There is no justice.
But you can buy the DVD and forget about all that. And go back the next day to buy one for your mother, because even though it's been twenty-odd years since she bought you "The Hobbit", you know she remembers reading it to you, and it's high time you returned the favour.
I am not exaggerating. It's that good. I want to watch this movie again and again, only I don't want to get used to it. I want every time I see it to be just as much of a magical surprise. Like "The Hobbit", I want to look at it on the shelf every once in a while and smiling-whisper, "I'll come back to you soon. With a new friend." Yes, I want to spread the gospel.
If you think I am exaggerating, you may be annoyed by the introduction Disney tacked on to the American DVD version. It features John Lasseter, head of Pixar and producer of the American translation, rambling on and on like me for about five minutes, and it certainly annoyed me the first time I saw it. But then I saw the movie, and now I know how John Lasseter feels. As an animator himself, he must feel - far more deeply than me - moved by this amazing work. Moved, uplifted, and spirited away.
A word of warning. Due to the efforts to produce an English dub that matches the characters' mouth movements, the dialogue in the English-speaking version has been altered. For the most part, the difference is minor. Sometimes, however, the English soundtrack and the English subtitles diverge into completely different dialogues. Being in the habit of watching movies on a very low volume with subtitles, so I don't wake my daughter up*, I discovered that it's quite distracting to watch the movie in English with English subtitles. The subtitles, of course, are translated directly from the Japanese, and I suppose that if you want to know EXACTLY what Miyazaki had in mind, subtitles are the way to go. However, the American voice acting is excellent, so if you're not used to reading subtitles I think you will have a fine experience listening to the dubbed version. The story is essentially the same.
* - note that this is not a movie to watch with toddlers, no matter how sweet and innocent the packaging seems. There are several frightening transformations and assorted other scary scenes. I would say that it's probably fine for most school-aged kids to watch, but not for the very small ones. This isn't Disney. The old fairy stories weren't meant for little children, either.