“Alice in Miyazakiland” would be an equally suitable title for “Spirited Away,” the new film from the celebrated Japanese animator that combines some wonderfully imaginative visuals with a plot that, to put it charitably, will seem loony to most American viewers. The set-up is very simple. A ten-year old girl named Chihiro and her parents find a strange otherworldly realm when they investigate a hillside tunnel on their way to their new house. Left alone, she has to survive and try to save her mother and father (who have been turned into swine) by taking a job as a servant in an ornate bath-house where spirits come for purification and refreshment. There she has to deal with the proprietor, a sorceress with a huge baby; a handsome young apprentice who can transform himself into a dragon; a huge slime creature that somehow transmutes into a being called “No-Face”; and the sorceress’ twin sister, who possesses a powerful amulet the apprentice tries to steal. There’s an incredible menagerie of other characters, too: perhaps the most notable is a group of three bodyless heads that bounce around, gurgling goofily as they do so. They eventually turn into something resembling a mechanical bird.
If all this sounds odd, it certainly is, at least to western eyes and ears. The whole apparatus of the spirit world, so familiar to Japanese viewers, will be foreign to US sensibilities, and it takes some getting used to. The apparent randomness and odd curves in the narrative, moreover, might prove unexceptionable to aficionados of Japanese anime or even the Saturday morning TV cartoons that proliferate on US networks nowadays, but they’ll probably bewilder viewers more accustomed to the more straightforward, linear plotting characteristic of American animation.
Nonetheless, if you’re willing to set aside a desire for logic of any sort and simply go with the flow, as they used to say, “Spirited Away” should do for you what its title suggests–transport you to a place you haven’t been before. You might liken the picture to a drug trip without the unfortunate side effects; it may leave you a trifle woozy and disoriented, but it won’t do you any lasting harm. In fact, the picture is least successful when one or another of its inventions is too familiar. The transformation of Chihiro’s parents into pigs, for example, recalls the fate that befalls some of the seamen in Homer’s “Odyssey,” and when “No-Face” appears, he turns out to bear an unfortunate resemblance to the knife-wielding killer of the “Scream” movies. The character of the apprentice and the good-bad reversals that occur toward the close, moreover, may put you in mind of Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” It’s actually when such reminiscences don’t occur to you that the magic is most potent.
The picture has been dubbed into English under the supervision of John Lasseter of Pixar. That’s good, not because the dialogue is of much consequence–it’s actually terribly banal, without any Lewis Carroll nuggets of wit; but at least the dubbing assures that viewers won’t be distracted from the pictorial pleasures by the necessity of attending to subtitles. And it is in Miyazaki’s remarkable technique and leaps of visual imagination that the strengths of “Spirited Away” reside. On that basis it’s certainly worth seeing, though it won’t touch you on an emotional level or offer anything much to ponder afterward except for what its oddities reveal about the writer-director’s own psyche. Watching the picture is like experiencing someone else’s dream: it’s fascinating but frustrating, a journey that’s often thrilling but also frequently absurd, and with a destination that seems banal by comparison to what’s preceded it.