SPIRITED AWAY ***
STARRING: The voices of Suzanne Pleshette, Michael Chiklis and David Ogden Stiers
DIRECTOR: Hayao Miyazaki
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
RATING: PG for scary moments, blood and violence
THE LOWDOWN: Animated film about a girl's accidental journey into the world of gods.
Imagine if Dorothy didn't open the door to find the wonderful land of Oz but instead found an exotically beautiful landscape of Japanese architecture and art.
That's pretty close to what you find in "Spirited Away," the eighth feature film by famed Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki.
In his deeply spiritual tale, Miyazaki has written and directed a story that's a close relative of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland": A young girl must grow up in a hurry after she's whisked away from her familiar surroundings into a confusing world inhabited by imaginative characters.
This is the English-language version of "Spirited Away," the highest-grossing movie in Japanese history ($230 million). The Walt Disney folks brought together three top names in animation -- executive producer John Lasseter ("Toy Story"), director Kirk Wise ("Beauty and the Beast") and producer Don Ernst ("Fantasia 2000") -- to translate the script while remaining faithful to the original.
I would say they've done their job, since this "Spirited Away" doesn't feel Americanized. It remains steeped in myth, fairy tales and Japanese spiritualism, including the long-ago belief that gods and spirits existed in everything from trees and rivers to insects.
Young Chihiro and her parents take a wrong turn while driving to their new home and end up in an abandoned amusement park.
The short drive sets up the unpleasant family dynamic: self-absorbed parents who don't listen to their child and an ill-mannered, whiney 10-year-old girl.
Unexplicably, Chihiro's parents find a tantalizing food buffet, gorge themselves and are quickly transformed into large squealing pigs. What's going on here? They've accidentally stumbled on a spirit world that doesn't welcome humans.
Chihiro is rescued by Haiku, a mysterious boy with magical powers. To survive and ultimately rescue her parents, however, she must work for the fierce old woman Yubaba, the boss of a gloriously ornate hot springs for the gods.
She'll meet an inventive array of characters -- some good, some evil and many with the power to change into something else. Along the way, Chihiro will be thrust into some pretty scary situations as she learns not only to survive but also about the power of love.
Miyazaki is a very influential force in Japanese anime, who audiences here may know best from 1997's "Princess Mononoke." His images are often gorgeous -- a ferry glowing with light; an underwater train; a soaring dragon.
If you're not averse to Japanese anime -- an animation style people tend to strongly like or dislike -- then you'll enjoy a wonderful story steeped in mysticism with plenty of lessons to share.
But this isn't for all younger children -- or even impatient adults. There are many frightening moments and the film's surprisingly languid pace and intricate storyline tend to drag it down to a crawl at times.