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Spirited Away

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
Spirited Away

from Film Forum, 09/26/02

Spirited Away is being presented across the U.S. by Walt Disney Studios, but it is not in any way a typical Disney film. Parents should be cautioned that while it looks like a friendly cartoon, it is actually an elaborate, complicated, and sometimes intense animated fantasy that may frighten and confuse young children.

It is also the most highly acclaimed movie of the year (check out the dozens of rave reviews stacking up at Rotten Tomatoes).

Drawing on a vast array of fairy tales and Disney films, legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has woven a tapestry full of myth, comedy, drama, and wild imagination. The story resembles a fusion of Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and earlier Miyazaki works (Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro). A good witch and a bad witch are feuding in a realm filled with spirits and monsters. Into this world stumble a man, woman, and their cautious daughter, Chihiro. The eager, careless adults quickly fall under a curse—the wages of sin, so to speak—and it is up to Chihiro to set them free. With the help of a few magical and sympathetic guides, Chihiro finds a job in a busy mansion, a sort of spiritual resort, called "The Bath House." There, her hard work and her virtue change the course of events. She becomes a hero of open-mindedness, patience, compassion, and courage.

Some Christian viewers may be disturbed by references to Shinto beliefs and "nature spirits" that pop up throughout the film. These tales are clearly coming from a tradition other than Christianity. No doubt they spring from Miyazaki's familiarity with Japanese culture, myths, and beliefs. But the film does not exist to preach a false religion. The trappings of another culture and another belief system here, ultimately, serve to glorify virtues that are resonant with the way Christ told us to live. Before the film is over (it is an exhaustingly busy 125 minutes), we have been given parables about greed and the power of sacrificial love.

Discerning grownup viewers should find much to debate, discuss, and enjoy. Older children may enjoy it too, although parents should discuss the film with them.

That's my take on the film. My full review is at Looking Closer.

Other Christian media critics posted varying praises and complaints. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) admits, "I'm not a big fan of Japanese animation. I'm also not very appreciative of films whose messages contradict the Bible from which I derive my beliefs. The fact that despite this, I've given the film two and one half stars speaks volumes as to its artistic level."

Debbie Mils (Catholic News) sees more value in the film: "[It] shows how the adult world is confusing and harsh to children and how they learn … to get past what they perceive to be scary obstacles in order to get what they want and need. It also shows how it can be a child's nature to trust and their need to follow their own instincts. [The film] ultimately has a fairy-tale happy ending as Chihiro makes it through her own personal journey, finding love and friendship."

Ted Snyder (Movieguide) offers an indirect rebuke of any Christians who like the film. "Bible-believing Christians and Jews will find Spirited Away particularly creepy." Snyder goes on to explain his understanding of "the difference between good fantasy and bad fantasy." "Good fantasy" depends on the hero learning lessons not from "pagan spirits" but instead from allegorical equivalents of "God Himself and/or one or more members of the Holy Trinity."

(However, it is not Chihiro who learns lessons from the symbolic spirits. Instead, they are humbled by her refusal to be ensnared by her own appetites. They are amazed by her selfless love for her friend.)

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Spirited Away is a work of pagan imagination. So are the works of Homer and Sophocles. In all these works there is much for Christian audiences to take exception with as Christians, but also much to marvel at as audiences." He also acknowledges Miyazaki's superiority as an animator: "I love the quirky character design in Monsters, Inc., but the mythic power of the imagery in Spirited Away makes Monsters, Inc. look like child's play."

Mainstream critics like Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) and Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) offered higher praise than for any film yet released this year, animated or otherwise. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) raves, "It is the best animated film of recent years. This is a wonderful film. Myazaki's works have a depth and complexity often missing in American animation."

from Film Forum, 10/24/02

One of the year's most extraordinary films, Spirited Away, continues to impress religious press film critics. Mike Hertenstein (Cornerstone) offers not only a rave review of the film, but an in-depth look at the life's work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki. "Miyazaki is a world-maker like Tolkien, like George Lucas aspires to be, and he continues to find new colors and pluck new notes."