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Spirited Away review

Fact: Disney have yet to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar. DreamWorks nabbed 2002's gong with Shrek, and 2003's award went to this catchily titled Japanese 'toon-feature, Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi. Or, to use its more familiar English translation, Spirited Away.

Not bad for a movie that contains no CG show-offery, no catchy songs, hardly any adult-pleasing wisecracks and not a single European fairytale reference for Westerners to latch on to. Writer/director Hayao Miyazaki may have handed English translation duties over to Pixar honcho John Lasseter, and the dubbing is certainly spot on, but Spirited Away will still feel almost extra-terrestrially bizarre to a mainstream Brit audience.

But don't be put off - after being spoonfed Mouse-House-flavoured magic throughout our formative years, Spirited Away will come as a Force-10 gale of fresh air. It concerns a stubborn 10-year-old girl named Chihiro who discovers the entrance to a strange ghost world. Once inside, she's forced to take a job as a cleaner in a magnificent bath house, whose proprietor is a witch named Yubaba and whose patrons are gods, demons and nature-spirits...

Describing Spirited Away as surreal would be something of an understatement. The animation is so fluid and organic, the character design so colourful and twisted, the dreamlike atmosphere so all-consuming - you'll wonder if you didn't hallucinate half of it. But it's far more than weird-out fantasising: Miyazaki's characters glow with humanity and Chihiro's journey from whining brat to child-hero effortlessly hooks your empathy.

We could have lived without the piano-lounge score, and the plot sprawls a little too randomly before it progresses. Yet there's no denying Spirited Away's power to connect you to a totally new and unfamiliar mythology, to energise your heart and subconscious. Die-hard Japanimation fans will hardly treat this as breaking news. But everyone else should definitely hold the front page.

Open your mind, and Hayao Miyazaki will welcome you into his crazy/beautiful world with open arms. Anything but your regular 'toon, it's a (literally) fantastic experience.

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