Unhappy to be leaving the familiarity of her old neighborhood, a sullen and fearful 10-year-old girl wanders away from her parents on the road to their new home, finds herself in a mysterious, enchanted world, undergoes trials requiring bravery and resourcefulness, and emerges with courage to face the new. The plot might apply to a hundred children’s stories, family-friendly films, and child-development studies. But only the great Japanese animation artist Hayao Miyazaki could dream up the marvels of Spirited Away, a triumph of psychological depth and artistic brilliance offered as the magical adventures of one skinny little girl.
Hollywood actors dub the dialogue in this English-language release — including Daveigh Chase (Lilo of ”Lilo & Stitch”) as the reluctant heroine Chihiro, Lauren Holly as her mother, Michael Chiklis as her father, and Suzanne Pleshette as warty twin sorceresses Yubaba and Zeniba. Still, the voices matter little in a universe that floats on images of such sublime, fluid anime beauty. The shadowy bathhouse and amusement park for the spirits that Chihiro enters — in the original Japanese, the realm belongs to gods — is a riot of busyness and personages haunting, funny, and often both: While the hulking, semitransparent figure called No-Face invokes loneliness, the gargantuan infant called Boh embodies the state of being spoiled rotten.
Having sidled its corporate way around Miyazaki’s work before, first with Buena Vista’s 1998 video release of ”Kiki’s Delivery Service,” then with Miramax’s 1999 run of ”Princess Mononoke,” Disney is smart to squire the American release of a Japanese animated masterpiece as resplendent as any in the great company repertory. If the words ”Walt Disney Studios Presents” bring more viewers to the thrills of ”Spirited Away” (the highest-grossing film in Japanese box office history), the gods and spirits of animated cinema will smile.