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 that's only nascent in Castle (where the blank-faced young heroes look like Speed Racer refugees), 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.
There's a lot less lost to translation in Castle in the Sky, a sort of Terry and the Pirates kids' adventure that culminates in a breathtakingly animated siege on the titular structure. But the best bet for Miyazaki 101 remains the highly accessible Kiki's Delivery Service, about a plucky preadolescent witch (voiced by Spider-Man's Kirsten Dunst) settling into a seaside town. It's sweet, observant, and radiates a child's easy sense of wonder. Try it first if you've never sampled Miyazaki. But trust John Lasseter: You'll want to get Spirited Away for dessert. Castle: B Kiki: A Spirited: A