This movie has a lot of hype. It is often hailed as one of the greatest animated films of all time, and that made me curious. I love animated films, and I’ve delved into anime and manga before. Heck, one of these days I might even review the Fullmetal Alchemist series.
Originally released in 2001, Spirited Away follows the adventure of a young girl as she finds herself in a magical alternate reality where spirits and monsters come out to play after sunset. I was pleased when I found out the film’s premise, as magic realism is one of my favourite genres in any medium. However, the thesis of this review will be that of disappointment, though Spirited Away does deserve a place of honour in the history of animated films. We will talk about the good, the bad, and why Spirited Away failed to live up to the hype (from the point of view of one blogger, of course, but hey, at least I’m not living in a basement! [I live in the attic thank you very much])
There is one thing that is absolutely undeniable: Spirited Away may just be the most brilliantly animated films ever. Certainly in 2001 it soared above and beyond everything else that had come before it. The colours are bright and varied, there’s always something moving (and consequently something for us to look at), the designs are unique and inspired, and motion is fluid and realistic while somehow maintaining that cartoonish feel. Even after the greatness of Disney films from the previous decade, I knew I was watching something new. If I had seen this film when it first came out, no doubt I’d probably be singing its praises like I do for Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Tarzan, et al.
There are also many great characters, with “Sen” deserving of the lead role. She is a believable, everyday, protagonist trapped in an incredible situation. She cries, she pouts, she doesn’t give up, and she stands up for herself and her friends. No-Face was my second favourite character (after Sen), and I’m not sure why exactly. It’s a combination of his mysterious nature/motive, his incredible strength juxtaposed against his passive and timid personality, and his desire to simply be Sen’s friend. This film also does a perfect job of creating an interesting antagonist. Yubaba isn’t evil by any means, but she does come off as devious, cunning, and dastardly. She’s a character that cares only about what she wants, and that is what causes trouble for our heroes. Any time we get a villain who isn’t all about watching the city burn or taking over the world, that is a good time.
There’s really nothing bad about this film. Sometimes in fantasy movies you have loose ends or things that don’t add up, or some a bit of logic that obliterates plot points, but not so here. The magic system is tidy and consistent. Even the abrupt end to No-Face’s storyline was acceptable.
Nothing about this film was bad in of itself.
Actually, this would’ve been a fantastic film if my expectations weren’t so ramped up. I read up on some other posts as to why so many people love this film so much, and other than the animation, most people say it’s because this film is a metaphor for life, starting with Sen’s separation from her parents, the stink spirit representing an environmental commentary, the train ride symbolizing death and moving on, and much more.
I don’t buy it.
Or, at the very least, I wasn’t moved by it. Spirited Away might be good at symbolism, but it isn’t excellent at it. To excel at something like this you need to imbue it into the audience without them realizing it, and the imagery is too overt in Spirited Away to be subtle. This is not a denouncement or even a criticism, just merely an observation. It does, however, makes the film inferior to others that have relayed their messages more naturally and subtly. To me, Spirited Away doesn’t feel natural when it’s trying to tell us something because things happen and they stand out. Bringing in the stink spirit to say humans are polluting the environment is not very subtle. Having No-Face consume people because of their greed is not very subtle. Again, this isn’t to say Spirited Away is a bad film, just that its symbolism isn’t so great as to make it the golden standard of film-making that some people seem to think.
When I saw No-Face eating everyone and everything up, I was more interested in what he was doing as a plot-device (hey this guy just wants a friend, but he’s making Sen’s life pretty darn difficult…) rather than an allegory of greed or societal isolation. Even after the film was over I thought no more of him beyond being an interesting wildcard with respect to the main plot. The film succeeds in delivering themes indirectly, but the lack of natural subtlety is noticeable, and did nothing for my viewing of the film beyond enjoying it at face-value.
This is a beautiful film. I don’t know how receptive children are to it, since I never watched it as a child, but I definitely recommend it to fans of animated film everywhere. Even while you’re watching it you get the feeling you’re watching something important (in the context of film-history). It’s Alice in Wonderland redux, and has its own quirks and charms to make itself stand out, and carries with it a solid plot and memorable characters. This being my initiation into the world of Studio Ghibli, I look forward to reviewing more of their films for you all.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.