Winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2003 (beating Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet, and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron) Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away is one of the most impressive animated features of this year, or any other.
With none of the sentimentality of Disney nor the computerised sheen of Pixar, this traditional animé even blows the brilliant Finding Nemo out of the water. It's epic story is more imaginative, rousing and luscious than anything American animation has produced since the halcyon days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
It begins as ten-year-old Chihiro (Hîragi) and her parents discover a tunnel in the countryside that leads them into an old, abandoned theme park. While her parents help themselves to the contents of a food stand, Chihiro goes exploring. But as night falls she returns to find that mum and dad have been turned into pigs, leaving her trapped in the spirit realm. Sent to work in a bathhouse for the gods, Chihiro has to find a way to break the spell.
Made after Miyazaki announced - and then renounced - his retirement following the critically acclaimed Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away is a feast of gorgeous animation and intelligent storytelling.
The workings of Miyazaki's wild imagination are laid bare in set pieces like Chihiro's attempt to bathe a 'stink god' - a slobbering mass of slime and grease who stinks the bathhouse out. His feel for the eccentric is even drawn into incidental characters like The Frog in a kimono, and the three disembodied green heads who roll around muttering to themselves.
In two hours Miyazaki offers more magic and innovation than most animators could manage in over two decades.
Japanese animé at its finest, Spirited Away is guaranteed to delight hardcore devotees, and those who've yet to make an acquaintance with the best that the East has to offer. See it and marvel.
Spirited Away is out now. There are two versions being released - subtitled and dubbed. Check the film listings to see where each version is playing.