If there's one thing that I find most hard about being an animated film critic, it's reviewing films that are highly praised by critics and seen as the very best. Not because these films are hard to watch, intimidating, or even hard to follow since they absolutely are not, but rather because these animated films have been so widely praised and acclaimed that I often find it hard to say anything new about these films that hasn't already been said. The reason I say this is because I think reviewing an animated film like "Spirited Away" is a challenge because it's one of the most universally acclaimed films ever made, and not just one that's animated. When it was released in Japan in 2001, it became the most acclaimed film by Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki, broke tons of box office records in Japan, and even managed to take home the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. I can easily say that the success it has had is well deserved because it truly is one of the greatest animated films I've ever seen and one that really leaves an impact on any viewer young and old. I adore this film so much.
When a young girl named Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) is moving to a new town with her family, her parents accidentally end up taking a wrong turn trying to find their new house and stumble upon what they think is an abandoned theme park. It turns out not to be the case as it's rather a bathhouse operated by spirits and at nightfall opens up to spirits who are looking to relax and take a bath. Chihiro is horrified by this and to make matters worse, her parents have turned into pigs and she's trapped in the spirit world with no way out. Hoping to save her parents and get out, Chihiro enlists in the help of a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino) to get a job at the bathhouse run by a witch named Yubaba (Mari Natsuki) and must find a way to get back her stolen name from the witch and save her parents before they are fattened up and turned into bacon.
As I stated at the beginning of the review, this might be one of the hardest animated films I'll probably ever review since it's an animated film that has been as widely acclaimed since it came out. Roger Ebert has called the film a masterpiece and put it in his Great Movies collection, Steven Spielberg has called it one of the best-animated films he's ever seen and maybe better than any film from Walt Disney Animation Studios he's seen, it has influenced tons of animation studios from the likes of Pixar and more, and you'll be sure to find the film high on internet movie reviewing websites like Letterboxd and IMDb. Needless to say, it's a film that absolutely deserves its success and praise and I'm gonna add on to the praise as best I can. This is one of the most imaginative stories I've ever seen in an animated film. The idea of a girl being lost in a fantasy world has been told in multiple stories over the years and this film is one of the smartest and most creative stories I've ever seen. As soon as Chihiro first meets Haku and she sees the spirit world coming to life, it really straps you in for the treat you're about to watch and it adds on with tons of visually imaginative moments and calming scenes that truly make this a special film from Studio Ghibli. Ghibli has always been known for making two kinds of films with their larger-than-life adventures and calming slice of life films and this is a film that takes advantage of the strengths of both of them. I think the two scenes that stand out to me the most are one where Chihiro is forced by Yubaba to tend to a disgusting spirit covered in mud and gunk and give him a bath which is so beautifully drawn and crazy to watch as you see her just trying to help this dirty customer and the other being one where Chihiro and a monster spirit called the No Face take a train ride to visit someone. The latter scene might be my favorite scene in the entire film as we watch the atmosphere from both the animated visuals and Joe Hisaishi's score just wash over the audience. It's one where the beauty of visual storytelling works its magic and evokes a strong empathetic reaction from the audience. I had so many emotions watching that scene that it really is hard to describe. I guess this leads me into talking about the animation which is also top-notch.
The visuals in this film are so insanely gorgeous and painstakingly detailed that it was just astonishing to look at. Miyazaki is known for having such distinct-looking characters in his films and here is where he really gets to let them shine. The character designs are all insanely creative and unique and all the spirits that we see in the bathhouse could have their own stories be told about them from a creature called the Radish Spirit who bears somewhat of a resemblance to Totoro and also a spider-like creature named Kamaji who runs the boilers of the bathhouse in the basement. It was some of the most amazing designs I've ever seen in any film. I also found the backgrounds exceptional as well and so richly detailed. The amount of effort that was put into simple objects like the vases and fine wood was incredible and some of the backgrounds of the film reminded me a lot of the work of the surrealistic painter Rene Magritte. It's the kind of animated world where I really wanted to stay and explore every single nook and cranny. This brings me to talk about the characters who are also top-notch. Chihiro is probably one of the best protagonists Ghibli has ever made. The character starts off as very whiny and insecure and by the end of the film, we see her growth and strength through all the effort she was put through from simply cleaning in the bathhouse to also helping some of the mysterious spirits. The other characters in the film are also quite interesting with Haku being a helpful yet mysterious spirit who's an apprentice to Yubaba, a cleaning girl named Lin (Yoomi Tamai) who initially looks down on Chihiro but grows to like her and helps her out with a tough personality to back it up, and Yubaba being a fun antagonist who is very crummy and greedy while still being a fun witch to watch due to her somewhat cranky personality. I could keep going on and on about how much I love this film, it really is that good.
"Spirited Away" absolutely deserves its reputation as one of the greatest animated films ever made. The story is very creative and imaginative, the animation is gorgeous and filled with great character designs and finely detailed backgrounds, and the characters are all very well fleshed out and could be the protagonist of their own film. This truly is both Hayao Miyazaki's and Studio Ghibli's finest animated film and it's a film that I absolutely think you must watch if you haven't already. It really is that much of a masterpiece. This really is an animated film that will continue to whisk away audiences for years to come and it is one that absolutely should continue to delight.