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movies: Swept "Away"

Breathtakingly beautiful and lyrical, Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" is such a wonder to behold, calling it a masterpiece seems inadequate.

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Clocking in at a fast-paced two hours, "Spirited Away" is stuffed-to-bursting with startling visuals that resonate with genuine emotions. Delighting young and old alike, Miyazaki's painstakingly hand-drawn animation becomes a dazzling surrealist wonder. Fueled by the logic of dreams and a poetic longing, Chihiro's adventure entrances moviegoers. The hours zip by, while the only sounds from the audience are murmurs of pure pleasure, occasional gasps of fright and lots of laughter.

Disney has been bringing Miyazki's work to American audiences in stages, hoping mainstream moviegoers will come to appreciate why he's so beloved in Japan. Beginning in 1998, with the home video release of Miyazaki's whimsical charmer "Kiki's Special Delivery," the studio next released his ecological epic "Princess Mononoke." But neither film did what Disney hoped — make Miyazaki a household name.

"Spirited Away" should.

Miyazaki's films always go deeper than their brilliant surfaces. "Spirited Away" is a fairy tale in the classic tradition of both the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney. While our pint-size hero is consumed with her selfish worries about fitting in at new school, fate steps in and gives Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase) something worthy of worry: the disappearance of her parents after a detour parks them at a resort ruled by a powerful witch (Suzanne Pleshette).

Reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts, she terrifies her minions — talking frogs, cursed children, living cinders — with dark magic. But she meets her match in Chihiro's willpower and new-found boldness. Guided by a mysterious shape-shifting teenage boy named Haku (Jason Marsden) and a tough older girl named Lin (Susan Egan), Chihiro bravely confronts all impediments — both real and imagined — that stand in her way.

Deeply rooted in Japanese culture, "Spirited Away" unreels with a welcome familiarity for American audiences — offering a twist on both "Alice In Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz." Often referred to as the Walt Disney of Japan, Miyazaki's popularity has a great deal to do with his frequent theme: Being young and being different is a good thing.

Although it's highly unlikely that "Spirited Away" will approach the same box-office success here as it did in Japan — having taken in $234 million to date — it definitely has the broad-based appeal needed to do so. Nothing short of a masterpiece, "Spirited Away" is sure to blow away any kid or adult savvy enough or intrigued enough to buy a ticket. ***** S

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