On a detour during a family drive, 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents discover what Dad calls “an abandoned theme park.” It’s really a sort of ghost spa — a Bathhouse on Haunted Hill — where she is a prisoner and her parents have been turned into swine. (They were bewitched because “they ate like pigs”; at this theme park, you are how you eat.) The frightened Chihiro realizes she must tap unused reserves of courage and ingenuity to escape.
Hayao Miyazaki is the world’s most revered master of animation (My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Ponyo), and this is his masterpiece. In Chihiro he has created a bold child who, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice or L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy, is both amazed and troubled by the kingdom in which she is a captive. The bathhouse, which welcomes tired ghosts from the far reaches of the spirit world, is run by Yubaba, a wicked queen with a huge head; her enforcers are three severed heads that follow her like bowling balls with a grudge. Hundreds of critters, each with a distinct personality, populate the descending circles of this teeming dictatorship. In the boiler room, Kamagi, a six-armed troll, keeps stern watch over dozens of soot-ball slaves — cute vermin, thrilled when Chihiro shows up to lighten their workload. The child’s best hope for fleeing Yubaba on the undersea railroad is young Haku, a boy who can assume the shape of a dragon. When Chihiro and this beautiful beast take to the sky, they express the most elevated forms of teamwork and puppy love.
The animation doesn’t boast the meticulously rendered character expressions of the early Disney features. Nor does it aim for the slam-bang effects of DreamWorks’ computerized cartoons. Instead, Miyazaki goes for, and gets, the big picture, the grand emotion, one spectacular set piece stacked on another in brilliant colors and design. There’s not a more impressive sequence in recent movies than the arrival at the bathhouse of a huge, amorphous river god, encased in centuries’ worth of stink and sludge, whom Chihiro has the daunting task of giving a sturdy wash and scrub. Spirited Away is handcrafted art, as personal as an Utamaro painting, yet its breadth and depth gave it a worldwide appeal.