Spirited Away is about a youngster named Chihiro who is moving to a new town with her mom and dad. As they're driving, though, they come across an old amusement park and decide to let the movers go ahead of them. Chihiro is against the exploring, especially since the journey begins with a walk through an entrance that looks like a bear cave meets death trap. (Actually, one is not too dissimilar to the other.) But Chihiro ends up separated from their parents when a food mishap goes, well, obese, and now a strange warrior a little older than Chihiro has to try and keep her safe from a weird world of Alice-in-Wonderland meets, um, The-Shawshank-Redemption? I don't know, but it's certainly a frightening Wonderland. One where she is disregarded for being a human, and she has to find a way out, and save her parents at the same time, without forgetting her real name.
It's very hard to not have gotten at least half a dozen chills seeing this movie. Daveigh Chase, who would go on to voice Lilo in Lilo & Stitch, embodies this scared little girl who has to grow up, and her having to grow up is a story element that has an advantage because of the long running time. Chihiro has to learn to try and trust strangers and face up to asking for work and behaving calm in front of creatures that would probably cause me to faint and accepting challenges even when she doesn't need to. But there's never a moment in Spirited Away that feels unrealistic. Underneath everything else, Chihiro's a ten-year old girl who is trying her best to return home.
And yes, this movie came out in 2001. But these days, most movies about kids have the kids maturing overnight. What's different about it in Spirited Away is that we never feel like Chihiro is younger than 10, and there's never a moment when she's scared where I wouldn't be scared myself. Miyazaki's scene with Chihiro and Haku sharing a rice paddy and Chihiro crying in the process is so smooth, it was relaxing to look at, and so effective that that scene, as well as most of this movie, should be a perfect example in schools for movie writers on how to make audiences shiver. The whole time, I felt like a 10 year old kid trapped in a strange world that wanted to eat me after it deported me. A world where taking the proper train and going to the proper stop was more important than anything I'd ever done.
It's true, even when Spirited Away was made, companies were resorting more to 3D animation because there was starting to not be as much of a market for 2D anymore. Well, Spirited Away wouldn't have had the same magic if it was in 3D. There's a mud monster that probably has a stench that lingers for weeks, and yet it looks so much more, well, pure and not as icky as it could've been as a 2D feature. The water, colourful sets, music, and even tears work together to show that if something is a cartoon, it does not mean it isn't an artform.
I also appreciated the interesting hidden message in Spirited Away when it gets to the bathhouse. Chihiro is underestimated and even discriminated by everybody, and yet tries her best and succeeds to impressive results for the most part. The magic about that is I always feel like I might not succeed when I finish my postsecondary education every day. This movie sends the message that anyone, no matter how small, just might do wonders, so nobody should be expected to fail. Not to mention Daveigh Chase, who would play Lilo a year later, is an adorable joy to be able to listen to.
I can't give Spirited Away a part of my best movies of the year list because, duh, it was released when I was three times younger than Chihiro. But if Studio Ghibli has anything coming out this year, I'm opening a part up in case. And Spirited Away would probably make #1 if this was released today.