Steve Daly
April 15, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Spirited Away

Current Status
In Season
130 minutes
Limited Release Date
Daveigh Chase, Miyu Irino, Takashi Naito, Mari Natsuki
Hayao Miyazaki
Walt Disney Pictures
Hayao Miyazaki
Animation, Foreign Language

We gave it an A

Back in the early 1980s, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas sponsored a U.S. release of Akira Kurosawa’s ”Kagemusha.” Now John Lasseter — the leading mind behind Pixar’s ”Toy Story” films — is playing ambassador for another Japanese movie master: Hayao (pronounced ”Ha-yah-oh”) Miyazaki, an animation writer-director who’s as popular in his own country as he is obscure here.

Disney is issuing two older Miyazaki films — ”Castle in the Sky” and ”Kiki’s Delivery Service” — in tandem with Spirited Away, Oscar’s Best Animated Feature. Though Lasseter introduces all three on DVD in the same loud-patterned shirt, he declares ”Spirited Away” is his favorite.

It’s not hard to see why. Filled with a subtlety of expression, ”Spirited Away,” which depicts a weird-as-David Lynch fantasy world with astonishing specificity, marks a new zenith in Miyazaki’s style. The story is basically ”Alice in Wonderland”: Mopey 10-year-old Chihiro finds herself in a hostile alternate universe where her yuppie parents have become pigs, and she must navigate treacherous tests of loyalty and resolve to rescue them.

Lasseter helped oversee an English-language soundtrack, featuring distinctly American voices like Daveigh Chase (”Lilo & Stitch”) as Chihiro and Suzanne Pleshette as the creepy good-and-bad-twin witches Zeniba and Yubaba. But lots of story elements don’t translate so well — for example, the central setting of a giant bathhouse where wandering spirits come to rejuvenate themselves. Where’s the DVD supplement explaining all these Japanese cultural references? Nowhere to be found among infomercial-style paeans to the movie.

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