Miyazaki's 'Spirited Away' is epic masterpiece that's not just for kids

Spirited Away,' the latest animated masterwork from Japan's Hayao Miyazaki, seems as if it's being spirited into release by Walt Disney Pictures.

Exactly why it is being treated more like a secret than an event is a mystery worthy of any in the film itself. It may not be easy to find, but once discovered, it's wondrous.

Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl, moves with her parents to a new home in a rural suburb. A wrong turn in the woods leads them to what seems to be an abandoned amusement park, and an untended booth mysteriously loaded with mouthwatering food.

As her mom and dad make pigs of themselves, they actually turn into pigs. Meanwhile, as night falls, a frightened Chihiro finds herself in a shadowy world inhabited by phantoms, spirits, gods and monsters. She finds an apparent ally in Haku, a boy (at least he looks like a boy) who helps get her a job in a towering, elaborate hot springs bathhouse run by the ferocious old sorceress Yubaba.

Chihiro must maintain her job Ñ not to mention her senses Ñ long enough to save herself and her parents. Not an easy task, given the resort's spectacularly varied employees and clientele. But the young girl finds unsuspected depths of patience, courage and self-reliance in the process.

Those who have seen other Miyazaki efforts Ñ 'Princess Mononoke,' 'Kiki's Delivery Service' and 'My Neighbor Totoro' Ñ will have some idea of the delights awaiting them here. Miyazaki's creations are possessed of a wealth of charm, grace, wit and a visual lucidity that is consistently surprising and vibrant.

The difference between Miyazaki's style and that of most other contemporary animated features might be described in terms of artistry versus technology, and craftsmanship versus bombast. In today's computer-dominated domain, the desired elements for animated features are hip humor, action and a more realistic sense of dimension Ñ just plain bigness, really. Miyazaki, however, has a genuine sense of the epic and an elegant classicism that puts him more in the company of directors like John Ford, David Lean and Akira Kurosawa.

The hot springs setting of 'Spirited Away' provides an expressive context for Miyazaki's evocation of the mystical realm. He portrays this dimension with a luminous, painterly beauty as fluid and clean as mountain water on rocks.

'Spirited Away' begs the same question as the recently restored French classic 'Beauty and the Beast.' These days, is it the jadedness of younger audiences Ñ rather than grownups Ñ that must be overcome? Imagine transfixed parents, truly spirited away, crying as their kids drag them out to the video games in the lobby.

Better yet, imagine children and adults united, reflecting one another through a grand fantasy's looking glass.

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