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Spirited Away: 2-Disc Set DVD Review

Buy Spirited Away on DVD from Amazon.com Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi - The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro)
Movie & DVD Details

US Theatrical Release: September 20, 2002 / Running Time: 125 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

English Voice Cast: Daveigh Chase (Chihiro/Sen), Lauren Holly (Chihiro's Mother), Michael Chiklis (Chihiro's Father), Suzanne Pleshette (Yubaba, Zeniba), Jason Marsden (Haku), Tara Strong (Bô), Susan Egan (Lin), John Ratzenberger (Aogaeru), David Ogden Stiers (Kamaji)

Japanese Voice Cast: Rumi Higari (Chihiro/Sen), Yasuko Sawaguchi (Chihiro's Mother), Takashi Naito (Chihiro's Father), Mari Natsuki (Yubaba, Zeniba), Miyu Irino (Haku), Ryunosuke Kamiki (Bôh), Yumi Tamai (Lin), Tatsuya Gashuin (Aogaeru), Bunta Sugawara (Kamaji)

2.0:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (Japanese, English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (French)
Subtitles: English, English captions; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: April 15, 2003
Two single-sided discs (DVD-9 & DVD-5); THX-Certified with Optimizer Tests
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99

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By Jake Lipson

Though it sounds terribly clichéd, there are certain films that simply defy description in mere words and must truly be seen to be believed. They come few and far between, but when they do, it's always a huge treat for moviegoers. As I sit down to write this review, I am at a loss for how to begin, because Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) is one of them.

Miyazaki's successful career is rife with great films, and he is often cited as an inspiration by many of Hollywood's top animation talents, including John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug's Life) and Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stitch). But Spirited Away is his most successful film to date. It stayed in Japanese theaters for more than ten months when it was released there in July 2001 and made over $234 million, becoming the highest-grossing movie in the country's box office history.
Following this tremendous success in its native country, Spirited Away was translated into English with Lasseter's guidance and dubbed by a virtual who's-who of previous Disney voiceover stars. It was met with nearly universal critical and public acclaim and won the 2002 Best Animated Feature Academy Award.

The film spirits us away along Chihiro (Lilo & Stitch's Daveigh Chase), a ten-year-old girl who is forced to leave her friends behind and move to a new home in the suburbs with her parents (Michael Chiklis and Lauren Holly.) They get lost en route and happen upon what they think is an abandoned amusement park with great-smelling food. When her parents eat it like pigs, they are turned into pigs, and a frightened Chihiro discovers the true nature of the "amusement park." It is a bathhouse for spirits, where they come and replenish themselves. When she encounters an oddly familiar boy named Haku (The Lion King II: Simba's Pride and A Goofy Movie's Jason Marsden), he offers to help her in this strange new world and suggests that she take a job at the bathhouse, owned by the witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette, also of Simba's Pride). While here, she meets all sorts of unique and magical beings and must find courage within herself if she is to survive among them and find a way of returning her parents to their human forms and returning the three of them to the human world.

No Face reaches out to Chihiro

To say more of the densely layered plot would ruin the delightful thrill of experiencing Spirited Away for yourself. Much like Pixar's productions, it is successful because it pulls you into a fully imagined, breathtakingly visualized other world that is both strikingly real and terrifically fantastical all at once. Miyazaki, who also wrote the Japanese screenplay, has a gift for keeping the story emotionally grounded and relevant to his audience even while magic completely surrounds it. Never once do you pause to question that these are not real, living, breathing beings inhabiting a world that is shown to us so fully that we accept it as being real, too. The film is brimming with imagination and succeeds not only as a compelling fantasy epic but also as a deeply emotional, complex human drama examining such themes as courage, determination, friendship, love and goodness. In one of many marked differences from American animation that also runs throughout Miyazaki's other works, no one can clearly be defined as the "villain" here, and there is no clear "evil"; instead, everyone exists in shades of gray. Also, not every question posed is given a clear answer, instead adding allure to the movie by encouraging audiences to actively think as part of the experience. The movie is all the better for it.

The movie is rich with Japanese mythology and culture, and as such might at first seem strange to American audiences. However, the story and the themes it addresses are universally relevant, and if you let yourself go in it, you will likely be thrilled no matter what culture you come from. The terrific English dub, directed by Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis: The Lost Empire), helps greatly in making it more accessible to American audiences. Other notable voiceovers in the dub include John Ratzenberger (Toy Story and all the other Pixar films), David Ogden Stiers (Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Lilo & Stitch and many others), Tara Strong (The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea), and Susan Egan (Hercules).

VIDEO and AUDIO

Spirited Away is one magnificent-looking animated film. Thankfully, the DVD does it justice. The 2.0:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is simply gorgeous. Though the Asian DVD release reportedly suffered from a terrible red tint that obscured the lush coloring of the film, there is no such problem here. Flesh tones are accurate, and the color palette is as astonishing as ever.
Colors are bright (or dark, when appropriate) and vivid, almost reaching out to envelop you completely in the visual wonder that is the film. Grain, dirt, and other possible print defects are completely absent. The transfer does a very fine job of reflecting the unique styles of the film and replicating its original theatrical presentation.

You can be spirited away to the world of the spirits in three different languages. The disc defaults to Disney's highly-touted (and very praiseworthy) English dub, but you can also access the original Japanese soundtrack, as well as another dub (in French) through the Set Up menu. The English and Japanese tracks are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, while French speakers will have to settle for 2.0 Surround. All three sound very fine. Dialogue and sound effects come across nicely, and the compelling score, composed by Miyazaki's longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi, is particularly dynamic. These are quality audio presentations that, as they should, richly compliment the video to provide an excellent movie-watching experience.

It is also worth noting that when view the film with the Japanese language track enabled, the original Japanese title and closing credits will be seen. The English credits and title play with both the English and French dubs (though the French title, "Le Voyage de Chihiro," appears before the film playback starts if you select that dub.)

BONUS FEATURES

Spirited Away comes to Region 1 in a terrific double-disc package, and while it isn't quite as loaded as Disney's releases of its own animated classics, it contains some unique extras that help enhance the film immensely. While I'm sure that more content could have been included, this satisfying DVD is definitely a case of quality over quantity.

The extra features are spread across both discs. On Disc 1, when you play the movie, a one-minute introduction by John Lasseter plays automatically in front of it and regrettably cannot be skipped.
In this entirely useless introduction, Lasseter tells you how lucky you are because you're going to watch Spirited Away, and summarizes the film briefly, with movie clips playing as he does so. I can understand the use of an introduction to the film for American audiences, who might be unfamiliar with Japanese culture, but this piece is neither informative in that regard nor entertaining. It is also accessible from the bonus features menu, and I am appalled that Disney did not just leave it there and instead insists on forcing the viewer to endure it every single time they want to watch the film. (If you go directly to Chapter 1, you can start the movie without hearing from the Pixar director.)

Disc 1's bonus features menu contains the introduction (again) and "The Art of Spirited Away" (15:12), a short Disney-produced featurette hosted by Jason Marsden (the English voice of Haku). It features many people -- Lasseter, Glen Keane, and others -- singing Miyazaki's praises and covers the process of translating and dubbing the film for release its English release in America. It has a tendency to get self-congratulatory and promotional on occasion, but is interesting and well worth a watch.

There is also an Easter egg on the bonus features menu, entitled "Meet Hayao Miyazaki", a short piece of an interview with Miyazaki and Lasseter. To reveal it, highlight "The Art of Spirited Away" on the menu and press the UP button on your DVD player's remote control.

Prior to arriving at the main menu, Disc 1 opens with trailers for the other titles that appeared in Disney's first wave of Studio Ghibli releases: Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service. Other trailers are accessible on the sneak peaks menu, including the theatrical trailer for Pixar's Finding Nemo, which was upcoming at the time of this disc's release. However, all of these trailers are now out of date.

The first feature listed on Disc 2 is "Behind the Microphone" (5:40), another Disney featurette about the translation and dub work. It is very interesting and features the screenwriters talking about their approach to adapting the film and the cast talking about what it was like to do a performance where they had to sync up their performance to the pre-existing animation. Like the majority of animation made today, Disney traditionally records the voices and animates to it, rather than the voice actors having to perform to picture, which made the process more difficult even for a cast that is full of previous animated stars. This very interesting piece should be required viewing for anyone interested in the creation of the excellent dub.

The select storyboard-to-film comparison (10:35) presents the opening sequences of the film in storyboard form, with either English or Japanese language tracks. The storyboards begin with the opening shot of Chihiro in the car, and end just as she first sees the bath house.
Because Miyazaki draws all his own storyboards, and outlines the entire movie this way with astonishing detail for something that comes so early on in the process, it is an extraordinary opportunity to see just how well the finished product reflects his original vision for the film.

The most interesting feature in the entire set is the Nippon television special, a 42-minute Japanese documentary that was aired there to promote the release of the film. It is interesting to see simply because its more relaxed, less hyped tone contrasts with the typical promotional TV special here in the US, but there is greater allure than just observing the cultural differences. The camera crew was allowed to film Miyazaki and others at work, and the result is an incredibly in-depth documentary touching on almost every aspect of the film's production that you could want to know about. There's a good deal about how the story came to Miyazaki and his inspirations for various portions of it, and then you go inside Studio Ghibli's animation department and see the creation of the film firsthand, and it's full of insight. With six months left until the release, only half of the film had been completed, and you can really feel the pressure to get it done on time. There's also footage of trips made to do research and compile sound effects; recording studio sessions with the original Japanese cast, including Yasuko Sawaguchi eating Kentucky Fried Chicken as she was providing the voiceover for Chihiro's mother eating; scoring sessions with Joe Hisaishi; and even a segment about the closing credits theme song, which was originally intended for another Ghibli production that fell through. It's a great documentary, and is required viewing any fan of the film. English speakers may have to stay on their toes to catch everything, though; it is in Japanese with optional English subtitles, but the narrator sometimes talks very fast and the subtitles can whiz by if you're not careful. Enjoy it, but have the pause button ready in case you miss something!

Also included are several of the film's original Japanese trailers, which play continuously in one long nearly-half-hour loop. It's fascinating to see the way that the film was marketed in Japan, where it became the highest grosser ever. The trailers are slower and less rushed than typical US previews, and they remind me of some of the longer spots created in Walt's day for releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and others. However, I wish these had been included on their own menu with an option to play all; as interesting as it is, it does get tiresome after a while, and I didn't watch to the end of the loop. If the upcoming DVD release of Howl's Moving Castle contains something similar, I do hope that Disney separates the trailers a bit more.

Unfortunately, Disney's US trailer for Spirited Away is nowhere to be found on this set, though it would have made a nice counterpoint to the Japanese ones. A shortened version of it, promoting the DVD instead of the theatrical release, does, however, appear on the Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service DVDs that Disney issued on the same day as this set.

MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Spirited Away is housed in a standard width, double-disc keepcase, with the first disc on a hinge. (Though the second wave of Studio Ghibli DVDs, issued in February 2005, originally came packaged in cardboard slipcovers, no such casing ever appeared with this DVD or any of the other two from the first wave.) The artwork on Disc 1 features Chihiro in the same pose as the cover art (which was, in turn, modeled after the theatrical release poster), while Disc 2 depicts her and No Face inside the bath house.

The insert is the most extensive of the first wave of Studio Ghibli releases, a four-page booklet. Chapter selections appear on the front page, of which there are sixteen; the inside features production notes, with Miyazaki talking about his work; and the back gives a quick overview of the bonus features included.

Chihiro and dragon

CLOSING THOUGHTS

After three previous reviews here, finally, here is a DVD that I can unconditionally recommend to everyone who visits this site. Spirited Away is not only a wonderful animated film, but a wonderful film, period, and it ranks up there as one of my absolute favorite movies of all time. It is brilliantly imagined, stunningly realized, emotionally affecting and tremendously entertaining. As if the excellent movie wasn't enough, the superb video and audio quality of this release, as well as a the inclusion of insightful bonus features that richly help to round out the Spirited Away experience, have insured that this DVD belongs in the collection of anyone who loves thoughtful, creative and exciting movies. Very highly recommended!

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Related Reviews:
Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli:
Howl's Moving CastleKiki's Delivery ServiceCastle in the SkyPonyoMy Neighbor TotoroPorco Rosso
Nausicaä of the Valley of the WindThe Cat ReturnsWhisper of the HeartMy Neighbors the YamadasPom Poko



Other DVDs Featuring the English Voice Cast:
Lilo & StitchLeroy & Stitch (Daveigh Chase, David Ogden Stiers) | Hercules (Susan Egan)
The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden) | Pocahontas (David Ogden Stiers)
The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (Tara Strong) | Boy Meets World: The Complete First Season (Jason Marsden)
The Ugly DachshundBlackbeard's Ghost (Suzanne Pleshette)
Fantastic FourFantastic Four: Rise of the Silver SurferEagle Eye (Michael Chiklis)
Toy StoryToy Story 2A Bug's LifeMonsters, Inc. (John Ratzenberger)

Thematically Similar: CoralineAlice in Wonderland

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Reviewed June 28, 2005.