The Top Ten (or so) Films of the Decade: #4 Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2002)
It was released in the same year as a Star Wars and a Lord of the Rings, and in a decade that gave us Pan’s Labyrinth and, uh, two more Lord of the Rings. But for me, Spirited Away is the defining work of fantasy on the big screen– a masterpiece of imagination that is without peer.
If I were making this list based on the sheer, visceral thrill of the moviegoing experience, this one would top them all, hands down. I remember seeing this one on the big screen– the first time I ever had such an honor with a Miyazaki film– and being utterly floored, not just at the animation (all hand-drawn!) but also the sheer scope and limitlessness of the auteur’s world-building, story-telling know-how. I struggled for a long time against the temptation to watch it again on DVD, not wanting the impact of that first viewing to be diminished, but the story is simply too rich and intoxicating to be denied. It fits the cardinal test of this kind of list: I could literally watch it over and over again.
Speaking of intoxication, I think it’s funny that the film is so often described using the language of narcotics. I’ve heard it called trippy, druggy, hallucinatory… and, of course, it draws frequent comparisons to the opium haze of Alice in Wonderland. But this isn’t the kind of movie that feels like it was birthed during an acid trip. Far from it: It’s drunk on nothing but childlike whimsy, wide-eyed wonder, the sheer joy of creation.
What’s it about? It’s about growing up, to be simple about it, but it’s not just a linear coming-of-age story. It’s emotionally mature, sophisticated. It’s like an elaborate series of little parables, some about friendship, some about responsibility, some about protecting the environment. It’s pro-family, pro-earth, anti-whining. It’s a lot like life– but maybe weirder. And it’s magical. You may have preconceptions about fairy tales, or about Japanese animation, but I promise you’ve never seen anything even remotely like Spirited Away.