Filled with gods and monsters and creatures natural and otherwise, this magical animated feature from Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki has one hand in such family fare as his own MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988), the other in traditional Japanese ghost tales and at least a toe in THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984). By creating a rare story-world that follows a consistent logic yet allows for most anything to happen, Miyazaki again proves himself to be more genii than filmmaker. Whiny 10-year-old Chihiro (voice of Daveigh Chase) isn't too happy about moving to a new town, and her mood isn't helped when her father (Michael Chiklis) takes a wrong turn, forges ahead onto a rutted dead-end road and winds up at what appears to be an abandoned theme park. Mom (Lauren Holly) and Dad chow down at the suspiciously well-stocked food stand, but the anxious Chihiro wisely demurs. Wandering across a nearby footbridge, Chihiro is suddenly confronted by Haku (Jason Marsden), a boy who's perhaps a year or two older but dressed in traditional garb. Haku angrily tells her to leave, warning Chihiro that it'll be dark soon and she won't be able to find her way back. Startled, Chihiro rushes back to her parents, only to find them transformed into immense, grunting pigs with no memory of being human. So begins Chihiro's journey to childhood's end, as she's forced to learn courage, responsibility and a sense of self — all of which are subtly developed throughout her imaginative adventures. Haku helps the now parentless Chihiro find work in a spirit bathhouse where all manner of ghosts, goblins and gods unlike any in Western tradition glide in to relax and socialize. Reluctantly hired by the business-minded witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), a frightener with heart, however deeply buried, Chihiro is stripped of her name, which is held as a sort of otherworldly work-bond. Now dubbed Sen, she toils at the bath house, encountering spirits helpful, dangerous, comical and kawaii. Gruff fellow worker Lin (Susan Egan) befriends her, and Haku, who has his own agenda, helps Chihiro try to restore her parents to their former selves and return home. While quickly and admirably dismissing the possibility that it's all just a dream, the film still possesses a dreamy soft-edged palette of hues; the watercolor-inspired panoramas seen from a train are, like the movie itself, serenely stunning. Understandably, the film became Japan's biggest box-office hit to date, surpassing TITANIC (1997) and eclipsing the record held for a time by Miyazaki's previous feature, PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997).
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