Back in the early 1980s, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas sponsored a U.S. release of Akira Kurosawa’s ”Kagemusha.” Now John Lasseter – the leading mind behind Pixar’s ”Toy Story” films – is playing ambassador for another Japanese movie master: Hayao (pronounced ”Ha-yah-oh”) Miyazaki, an animation writer-director who’s as popular in his own country as he is obscure here.
Disney is issuing two older Miyazaki films – ”Castle in the Sky” and ”Kiki’s Delivery Service” – in tandem with Spirited Away, Oscar’s Best Animated Feature. Though Lasseter introduces all three on DVD in the same loud-patterned shirt, he declares ”Spirited Away” is his favorite.
It’s not hard to see why. Filled with a subtlety of expression, ”Spirited Away,” which depicts a weird-as-David Lynch fantasy world with astonishing specificity, marks a new zenith in Miyazaki’s style. The story is basically ”Alice in Wonderland”: Mopey 10-year-old Chihiro finds herself in a hostile alternate universe where her yuppie parents have become pigs, and she must navigate treacherous tests of loyalty and resolve to rescue them.
Lasseter helped oversee an English-language soundtrack, featuring distinctly American voices like Daveigh Chase (”Lilo & Stitch”) as Chihiro and Suzanne Pleshette as the creepy good-and-bad-twin witches Zeniba and Yubaba. But lots of story elements don’t translate so well – for example, the central setting of a giant bathhouse where wandering spirits come to rejuvenate themselves. Where’s the DVD supplement explaining all these Japanese cultural references? Nowhere to be found among infomercial-style paeans to the movie.