May 2003

Spirited Away

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring the voices of Daveigh Chase,
Susan Egan, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette
Classification: PG

Winner of the Oscar for best animated film, 2003

Not your father's animated film, Spirited Away details a series of strange and occasionally unpleasant adventures experienced by ten-year-old Chihiro and her hapless parents. Thematically, this movie echoes some of the elements found in Miyazaki's earlier (and lighter) My Neighbor Totoro. Like that film, Spirited Away begins with a family driving to their new home. Taking a wrong turn, however, Chihiro and her parents find themselves in what her father declares is an derelict theme park. Following some delicious odors, her parents are unable to resist the treats set out in an abandoned restaurant.

It turns out that this is spirit food, however, and by eating it Chihiro's parents are transformed into pigs. Chihiro herself, although not having partaken of any of the edibles, nevertheless begins to vanish.

She is rescued in a manner of speaking by a boy named Haku, who tells her that the buildings are actually the environs of a colossal bathhouse frequented by spirits. They come to the bathhouse to relax before returning to whatever it is that spirits do during the day. The concept of a bathhouse is foreign to most Americans and adds nicely to the dreamlike quality of the movie.

The bathhouse is presided over by a bizarre-looking witch named Yubaba, who has an immense wart between her eyes and a head as big as her body. Chihiro learns from Haku that the only way she can rescue her parents is to beg Yubaba for a job in the bathhouse. And for this, she must give up her name.

The story veers back and forth in a way that viewers familiar with Disney product will find strange, to say the least. It is, as well, utterly free of the sort of smirking elbow-in-the-ribs humor that defines so many American animated films, and this lends the movie a more serious air. By now everyone knows that Spirited Away has won the Oscar for best animated film, having been up against some pretty serious Hollywood efforts like Ice Age, Stuart Little 2, Lilo and Stitch, The Wild Thornberrys Movie and Treasure Planet. I actually was rooting for Ice Age, but I am not at all displeased that Spirited Away won, because I admire the work of its creator, Hayao Miyazaki, very much. American audiences will be most familiar with his earlier animated film, Princess Mononoke, which received a fair amount of critical attention here a few years ago. Spirited Away is a better movie, in my opinion. It has a genuine Alice-In-Wonderland quality to its unpredictable plotline, and the characters are not all good or bad, but an intriguing mixture.

Hayao Miyazaki has said that he doesn't always know how his stories will end when he starts, and Spirited Away does seem to have some strange plot lapses, especially toward the end. But that shouldn't stop you from seeking out Spirited Away, preferably on a large screen where you can sit back and be blown away by the incredible animation.

Also, do see if you can find My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, earlier and somewhat simpler films from this same talented director.

Here's a worthwhile fan site: http://www.nausicaa.net/.



Recent Raves:

Mostly Harmless
By Douglas Adams

The sixth and final entry in the inaccurately named Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, Mostly Harmless is laugh-out-loud funny in places but remains the darkest entry in the series, with a surprisingly downbeat ending - despite Ford Perfect's hysterical laughter. There is some evidence that Adams had planned to do a seventh volume, but his untimely death has robbed us of that pleasure.

Opening with a relatively long scene on a parallel Earth where Tricia MacMillan has not gone off with Zaphod Beeblebrox from that party but has instead become a TV reporter, the book follows her for a time before veering off, Adams-like, to other plotlines. It turns out that Arthur Dent and Trillian (as opposed to Tricia) have a daughter, by means of artificial insemination. This child, Random Frequent Flyer Dent, is, at the time of this book, a teenager, and out to cause a lot of problems for Arthur. But worse than that - the Vogons have discovered that they need to destroy all Earths in all parallel universes in order for their interstellar bypass to function properly. In order to accomplish this they have launched a scheme so convoluted and fiendish that - well, that only Douglas Adams could have thought it up.

This final Hitchhiker's book contains some of Adams's best writing - some of it surprisingly effective. Arthur's attempts to work out a relationship with his truculent teenage daughter, for example, may well ring true to parents everywhere.

The only problem is -- it isn't funny! It's as if Adams had grown so weary of being comical and ironic that he actually had to try to make his characters more real just for the sake of setting himself more of a challenge. He almost manages to do this (almost - it wouldn't have been easy to pull it off in Ford Prefect's case, but Arthur was always more interesting than Ford anyway), although at the expense of some of the lunatic quality that marks his funniest work.

So is this worth reading? Sure, but be forewarned -- it may give you a twinge of nostalgia for Marvin, Slartibartfast, and may even Zaphod himself.

CHARISMA
A novel by Steven Barnes
Release date June 2002
$24.95 hardcover
384 pages
published by Tor Books

Suppose you had an idea for improving a group of high-risk children (the poor and minorities) by imprinting a group of them with personality aspects of one of the most famous and accomplished men in the world, a man who has distinguished himself in several fields, a man admired by all, who has risen from poverty by his own efforts and has been responsible for great social good.

Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? Even though there are many who would blanch at the project's taint of eugenics.

So you have to keep the project a secret until it proves itself.

Then, before it does, suppose something goes wrong and the children begin acting in a far darker manner than anyone would have suspected. So dark, in fact, that you begin to fear that your model, the famous and well-respected man whose personality has been imprinted on the children, may harbor a terrible secret that he has been at great pains to hide from everyone around him.

Almost everyone, that is. Because even monsters can have a friend or two...

In brief, this is the idea driving Charisma, the story of a group of young friends who are more than just special. Barnes takes us into the lives of these super-children, who really want nothing more than love and a chance to prove themselves. Not even they are aware of their darker nature until events conspire to bring this nature to the fore. And once that happens, no one, not even their parents, can be safe.

I don't want to say too much about the story because I found it so elegantly written and compelling. There's a lot of violence and death in this book, but it's so well done that it never feels gratuitous. Essentially it's the story of how courage and love can conquer our baser instincts. In that sense the book represents a sort of liberal fairy tale, what with the bad guys getting theirs and love conquering almost all; it would probably have most conservative readers shaking their heads. But this is fiction, not reality, so we can set aside our doubts and fears and let Barnes, whose co-authors on other books have included Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, spin this entertaining tale. I hope he does other books about these superkids, because I really liked them.