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<i>Spirited Away</i>

Dominic Corry looks at the Oscar-winning animated epic from celebrated Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most interesting cinematic talents working today. He apparently planned to retire after his previous film, the eco epic Princess Mononoke , but was inspired to make Spirited Away after meeting the sullen ten-year-old daughter of a friend.

Spirited Away opens with a sullen ten-year-old girl name Chihiro travelling to her new home town with her parents. They take a small detour through a forest and decide to explore the dilapidated theme park they happen upon.

While exploring the strange place, which is starting to look less and less like a theme park, Chihiro happens upon a young boy named Haku who warns her to leave immediately - before the suns sets. But Chihiro is too late, and a horizon-reaching expanse of water has risen up to fill in the valley she crossed on foot just hours earlier. Not only that, she discover her parents have been turned into pigs. Big fat squealing pigs.

But Haku promises he will help her get parents back, all she has to do employment at the local bathhouse, where spirits go to relax. Which she does, thanks to a kind turn from the boiler man - an eight-armed freak who commands a small army of magical soot creatures. She signs a contract with the bathhouse's owner Yubaba, a Lewis Carroll-esque wrinkly old lady with massive imposing eyes and an elephantine baby named Boh, who never leaves the nursery. But in signing the contract she surrenders her name, and will now be called Sen.

Sen becomes part of the complex routine within the bathhouse and has many bizarre encounters with the employees and the customers. But the story has only really just begun, and Chihiro must face many trials if she is to remember her parents and reclaim her identity.

I realise how weird the above must sound, but trust me, it works perfectly in the movie - the suspension of disbelief is never threatened. That's not to say however that the movie cannot be enjoyed simply as a weirdfest - it most certainly can.

Director Hayao Miyazaki, who's practically a god in Japan, simply doesn't know how to compromise his vision - and it's a wondrous thing. The film is so confident of itself that you feel like a fool for questioning anything on screen, despite how far "out there" it is.

The film is filled with amazingly imaginative creatures (or spirits, or whatever the hell they are) which range in appearance from Pokemon -esque parroty things to the massive lumbering "Radish Spirit" (radishes have spirits?) to a giant, daunting "Stink God".

But there is also a multitude of charming little critters that will please the young 'uns, but who have mountains more personality than your average Disney sidekick. The aforementioned soot creatures had me shrieking with delight, plus there's the team of the plump little hamster and his friend the gnat, who flies the hamster around with considerable effort.

The backgrounds too, are breathtaking. The locale of the film - you are never properly told "where" it is - evokes an eerie sense of alienation that you can tell Chihiro is feeling aswell. There's a train that quietly speeds over an endless ocean (don't ask how), and the bathhouse itself is a masterpiece of design.

Princess Mononoke was an amazing film, but perhaps a bit lumbering at times. Spirited Away on the other hand, zips along with the zest of the best Disney, coupled with a classic sense of the scary that seems inspired by the stories of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm.

Miyazaki is a traditionalist when it comes to animating. While some computer techniques are employed (mainly to enhance colours), Spirited Away is very much a hand-drawn film. Every corner of the frame is filled with the kind of lush details that can only come from an artist - there is no redundant space on screen.

The bathhouse (hey spirits need to relax too), where most of the film takes place, is said to be a representation Miyazaki's own production house, Studio Ghibli, although I'm sure they don't have any "Stink Gods" in there (or maybe they do). Life in the bathhouse is vividly portrayed - from the snarky cleaning ladies to the panicky frogmen that uh, do what they do.

Disney gave the film a minimal distribution in the US last year, but is now mounting a wide re-release following the film winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar. They employed Toy Story director John Lasseter to oversee the English dub of the film, and it shows - much care has been taken to ensure the voices match the character's mouth movements.

If I was forced to boil this film down (something I would resist greatly), I would say it's a movie about believing in yourself. But there's so much more to it than that. It can be accessed from any angle - Alice in Wonderland -esque fable; a monster movie; a dark fantasy; a workplace comedy or a magical tale filled with wonder, fear, joy and many other emotions.

The english language is far too blunt an instrument to articulate the pleasures of this film - just trust me and go see it! You won't get a more interesting, rousing or emotional cinematic experience this year.

Dominic Corry