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[whitespace] 'Spirited Away'
Strange Trip: Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) takes a ghostly train ride in Hayao Miyazaki's 'Spirited Away.'

Water Music

The exquisite 'Spirited Away' is a Japanese variation on 'Alice in Wonderland'

By Richard von Busack

MAYBE IT'S the relentless pace of animated cartoons that makes them seem as if they're only for children. Without any space for contemplation, the speed and brashness exclude anyone out who wants a moment to think.

The late Chuck Jones loved a good long pause for a reaction shot, which partially explains his all-ages appeal. Spirited Away, a modern classic, gives you that chance to withdraw. Its elegance is due to the way animator Hayao Miyazaki includes space and time in his story of a haunted world.

A young girl named Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) is being moved to a new city by her parents, who are brisk and unsympathetic to their daughter's fears. On the way, they stop their car to explore an abandoned amusement park. They cross a dry ornamental stream on the park's border and cap their trespassing by helping themselves to a banquet left unattended.

The enchanted meal turns them into ugly swine. Chihiro finds herself stranded, and the ornamental creek turns into a wide inland sea, separating her from the human world. The girl gets a job as an underling in a spa, a traditional Japanese bathhouse for the world of the spirits. The guests range from benign but frightening vegetable spirits to placid but dangerous ghosts. Her boss is Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), a greedy witch Chihiro must outwit to free her parents and herself.

Miyazaki and his Ghibli studios need little introduction to those who saw and loved My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke. Spirited Away, an all-time Japanese box-office hit, arrives in subtitled or dubbed versions, depending on the viewer's choice. (John Lasseter of Pixar supervised the English-dubbed version, and in just this one instance, it was good to have the subtitles out of the picture's frame.)

As always. Miyazaki turns his back on the simple stories of good and evil that make up most animation. What interests him isn't conflict, but harmony. In Spirited Away, it's not all about right and wrong, but about sickness and health.

Yubaba may be wicked, but she has her reasons, and she keeps her promises. Yubaba is a fond--too fond--mother. And she keeps a cool head when an immense and vile customer disrupts the bathhouse. The spa is hard work, almost slave labor, for Chihiro. And yet it's a place of cleansing and healing--at a hefty price--for spirits polluted by contact with human beings.

Spirited Away has a few references to Alice in Wonderland: animal flunkies, the huge-headed Yubaba and her bawling monster baby (who looks a little like the Duchess, with her pig-child). Like Alice, Chihiro falls down a hole that never seems to end. And like Alice in Wonderland, Spirited Away seems full of hints of deeper significance.

It delivers the quickest pleasures of cartoons, from chase scenes to slapstick comedy to bizarre juxtaposition. Admittedly, Miyzaki's cartoons can be confusing. Take Bernie Mac's funny comment about Princess Mononoke being "a three-hour Japanese cartoon about a singing jellyfish." That's a heartfelt critique that Miyazaki's earlier work can survive.

The inexplicable strangeness and the astonishing use of color all make this a movie more in common with the work of Andy Goldsworthy than Walt Disney. This adventure isn't just an entertainment about the bravery of a little girl but a meditation on the holiness of water.

Spirited Away (PG), an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, plays at selected theaters.

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Web extra to the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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