The pictures are worth a thousand words in "Spirited Away," Disney Studios' delightful English-language version of the Japanese feature cartoon that holds that country's all-time box office record. In this case, popularity is not an index of expensive hype. Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki's spellbinding tale of a little girl named Chihiro who's lost in an alternative world of tricky ghosts and bizarre monsters is both universally engaging and deeply personal. It's a movie full of bewitching images and timeless fun and beauty.
Like all the best children's movies, "Spirited Away" transports you to another world, one so vividly imagined and so entrancingly realized that it generates its own spirit of wonder. And although it is definitely made for children, the film has a sophistication and imaginative density fit for adults as well.
As the story unwinds, the film develops some of the dreamlike power of its obvious models, "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz." Working in gorgeously old-fashioned animation, without the digital opulence that is increasingly the norm for feature cartoons, Miyazaki sweeps you into a dreamland quest, blotting out the real world -- our own and that of the film's 10-year-old heroine.
"Spirited Away" begins slowly and makes you adjust to its rhythms. At first, spoiled Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase of "Lilo and Stitch") and her parents are shown on a sunny drive toward their seemingly banal new suburban home. But an imprudent shortcut through the woods brings them to ancient, shrine-filled temple grounds and a passageway that leads to a spooky realm seething with images from a vanished Japanese past.
The know-it-all parents (Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis) don't realize this, and soon they're trapped. After unwisely gorging themselves on unwatched bowls of steaming goodies, Mom and Dad are magically transformed into pigs. Chihiro herself runs for cover and is forced to fend for herself, aided mostly by the young guide she suddenly meets, Haku (Jason Marsden).
The movie is primarily set in a vast bathhouse by an imaginary ocean, abandoned by day but populated at night by an amazing gallery of winged boy/dragons, stink river gods, masked specters, aging spidermen and talking frogs.
Ruling all this is a huge-headed, tiny-bodied witch named Yubaba (voiced with great relish by Suzanne Pleshette), who tyrannizes everybody, shamelessly indulges her immense squalling baby (Tara Strong) and has a disconcerting habit of turning into a bat and flying away. But, as Haku informs Chihiro, she will be safe from harm and Yubaba as long as she asks for a job and gets one. Soon she's working in the furnace room under the generous tutelage of spiderman Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers), alongside a legion of big-eyed, skittering little creatures called sootballs, all the while plotting ways to free her parents from the huge pig barn in which they are imprisoned.
Japanese anime, the cartoon medium of which Miyazaki ("Kiki's Delivery Service," "My Neighbor Totoro") is one of the masters, has long been a cult item in America, though never especially popular at the box office. But this English-language version is the most thorough translation yet. The executive producer is John Lasseter (both "Toy Story" films), the director Kirk Wise (co-director of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"), and they've redubbed the dialogue carefully, making the American speeches match the original Japanese lip movements. The American voice actors all fit their roles, including the sassy Pleshette and spirited Chase.
It's obvious that the U.S. team respects Miyazaki and wants to preserve his flavor while building a bridge to American audiences who haven't yet accepted him -- or anime. Almost certainly, they will build this bridge. In addition to its overseas commercial prowess, "Spirited Away" also shared this year's Grand Prize at the Berlin Film Festival -- a rare feat for an animated film.
Parents on the lookout for something that should delight their young kids (while not boring adults) should consider "Spirited Away." It's a film that moves to its own rhythm and seeps into our imagination. Chihiro and her journey -- and Miyazaki's visions of Japan past -- are a gateway to a dreamland.
3-1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Spirited Away" Directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki; U.S. version directed by Kirk Wise; adapted by Cindy Davis Hewitt, Donald Hewitt; animation director Masashi Ando; edited by Takeshi Seyama; art directors Yoji Takeshige, Norobu Yoshida; music by Joe Hisaishi; singer Yumi Kimura; executive producer Yasuyoshi Tokuma (Japan), John Lasseter (U.S.); produced by Toshio Suzuki (Japan), Donald W. Ernst (U.S.). A Walt Disney release of a Studio Ghibli film; opens Friday, Sept. 20. Running time: 2:04. MPAA rating: PG (some scary moments).
Chihiro -- Daveigh Chase
Yubaba/Zeniba -- Suzanne Pleshette
Haku -- Jason Marsden
Kamaji -- David Ogden Stiers
Lin -- Susan Egan
Chihiro's Mother -- Lauren Holly Chihiro's Father -- Michael Chiklis
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times