Sunday, September 22, 2002
Los Angeles The Walt Disney Co. is used to creating its own animated movies, not importing them.
That changed when "Toy Story" creator John Lasseter persuaded the studio to take a chance on the Japanese anime film "Spirited Away" by adapting it with English dialogue and releasing it in U.S. theaters.
The film, by writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, tells an "Alice in Wonderland"-style story about a girl who becomes trapped in a world of nature spirits and must escape to rescue her parents from a spell that transformed them into pigs.
Strange? That's what Lasseter liked about it.
"When you go see a film, you're amazed if there's one or two unique visions that you've never seen before," he said. "In 'Spirited Away,' almost every sequence made me ask, 'How did he think of this?"'
Among his favorite moments was a mid-air battle between a flock of enchanted paper cut-out birds and a snake-like dragon.
Digging into Disney
"Spirited Away," known as "Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi" in its homeland, became Japan's highest-grossing movie last year, topping the American film "Titanic" by earning approximately $234 million.
It is the first Japanese anime film to debut under the Walt Disney Pictures banner, which is normally reserved for the studio's own family fare.
Disney released Miyazaki's "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989) on video in the United States in 1998, and in 1999 the corporation's Miramax Films division organized a small theatrical release for his battle epic "Princess Mononoke" (1997), about an animal revolt against developers.
If "Spirited Away" is successful in its initial limited distribution ï¿½ it opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles ï¿½ it would receive a wider release.
Among the actors lending their voices to the English version are Michael Chiklis, John Ratzenberger, Suzanne Pleshette and Daveigh Chase, who also played the little girl in Disney's "Lilo & Stitch."
Lasseter, who co-directed "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story 2," had two jobs as executive producer of the English-language adaptation: Make the film accessible to Western moviegoers, and preserve Miyazaki's original vision.
Many characters in the film are Earth spirits ï¿½ the "souls" of natural entities ranging from rivers to radishes and mud ï¿½ and the story takes place at a mystical bathhouse where they gather to relax.
"In my grandparents' time, it was believed that spirits existed everywhere ï¿½ in trees, rivers, insects, wells, anything," Miyazaki said through a translator. "My generation does not believe this, but I like the idea that we should all treasure everything because spirits might exist there, and we should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything."
Lasseter acknowledged that many of these elements will be unfamiliar to many Western moviegoers.
"For Japanese audiences, they looked up on the screen and saw things that were familiar to them: a bathhouse, a village society, traditional earth spirits and river spirits," Lasseter said. "So for us, Americans may look up at this film and not necessarily know what is going on."
He said the English-language script includes extra dialogue explaining the myths. That's why characters sometimes talk to themselves, or their voices are heard even if they are not onscreen.
For instance, a scene in which the girl walks away from a boy and looks back to see a dragon take off into the sky was played silently in the original film. In the English version, she cries out his name and wonders aloud if it's a transformation.
For young imaginations
Children may be more willing than adults to allow some questions about the story to go unanswered, said Kirk Wise, co-director of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," who directed the English dubbing of "Spirited Away."
"Older people may think it's way out there, but if you say to children, 'Once upon a time there was a bathhouse where all the gods and spirits and monsters go on the weekends,' they'll accept it," he said. "That's one of the great things about kids."
Some of the film's more disturbing elements, however, may be too much for young children. The pumpkin-headed, deeply wrinkled witch named Yababa borders on the grotesque, and so does a ghost named "No Face," who adopts the personalities of people he swallows. Those are some reasons "Spirited Away" received a PG rating, suggesting parental guidance, instead of the typical G designation for family films.
Wise compares the frightening scenes in "Spirited Away" to the sorceress with the poison apple in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" or the whale Monstro from "Pinocchio," who swallows the puppet boy and his father.
"They had their share of spooky scenes, too," he said.
"When I create a film, I believe it should reflect real life," Miyazaki said. "Even children would not believe a film that is filled with only happy sequences."