Friday, April 18, 2003

When Ariel Just Don’t Cut it No Mo’

When Ariel Just Don’t Cut it No Mo’
Academy Award winner “Spirited Away” doesn’t require an anime club card

Nerds with hyperactive sebaceous glands and “Dragon Ball Z” T-shirts who secretly fantasize about sexual encounters between Lara Croft and Princess Zelda.

Permanently prepubescent manga-addled she-geeks with Sailor Moon lunchboxes.

These are the two most widely dispersed stereotypes of the American fan of Japanese animation. But enjoying “Spirited Away,” which recently won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, does not require membership in Japanomaniacs Anonymous. Quite the contrary, “Spirited Away” entertains, mystifies and - at least for the duration of the film - allows the viewer to recall how the world looked through a child’s eyes.

Hayao Miyazaki, whose Studio Ghibli-produced films like “Princess Mononoke” and “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” glow with a near-perfection Disney could only dream of, offers the viewer Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl separated from her parents and lost in a world of spirits. It’s a stranger-in-a-strange land motif in the tradition of Alice, Dorothy and Little Nemo, only here with a socially relevant twist: because the laws of this fantastic realm force residents to either work or vanish, Chihiro gets a job working at a bathhouse that pampers the spirits that roam invisibly in her home world. Aside from struggling with the pains of child labor, Chihiro clashes with Yubaba, the witchy mistress of the bathhouse, befriends various quirky denizens and at one point runs from a giant puke monster.

Odd, yes, but still masterfully beautiful filmmaking.

Giant radish spirits and non-homosexual bathhouses may not enter the realm of American cinema often, but these elements of Japanese culture actually enhance the effect of wonder permeating “Spirited Away.” Culturally savvy viewers will dig the cultural significance, but most Americans will simply feel further dazzled by the world Miyazaki has created. Just as a child views the human world, Chihiro approaches her new home with caution, amazement, curiosity and fright.

Admittedly, the storyline is somewhat confusing. Whether this is a result of the intentionally surreal dreaminess or just a muddled translation is ultimately irrelevant. The protagonist often seems just as lost, only she relishes it. So should you.

Besides, the film’s other technical aspects also merit most of the praise. The animation - aided only occasionally by computers - flows marvelously. Those responsible for the translation from Japanese to English took great pains to preserve this achievement by selecting dialogue that would match the character’s mouth movements, thus eliminating the “I’m saying this even though my mouth could never produce this sound in this position” tendency that often plagues such Americanizations.

The translation’s other virtue is the suck-free English cast. Chihiro’s American incarnation is voiced by Daveigh Chase, the coolest 13-year-old in movies today. Chase previously terrified as bad seed Samara in this year’s other successful Japan-to-America translation, “The Ring.” In “Spirited Away,” her voice nicely intones Chihiro’s innocence without ever sounding saccharinely whiny. Suzanne Pleshette, Lauren Holly (“Dumb and Dumber”) and John Ratzenberger (“Cheers”) memorably voice their characters as well.

“Spirited Away” is good. It’s also been granted a limited theater re-release. Too lazy to go out? It’s on DVD — or hey, it's even on VHS, too, if you're feeling especially nostagolic for your younger years. Indulge your inner child or go watch a puke monster. Whatever gets you to watch.

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