Spirited Away

The great Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki has made his masterpiece. Spirited Away, which was even more popular in Japan than Titanic, is the most deeply and mysteriously satisfying animated feature to come along in ages. At a time when animated movies, at least of the computer-generated Shrek and Toy Story variety, have never been funnier or friskier, Miyazaki offers up the traditional pleasures of hand-drawn animation combined with the emotional undertow of a resounding myth or Grimm's fairy tale. It's about a 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, who enters into a supernatural world with her parents and then must go it alone in order to rescue them in a dreamscape peopled by deities and spirits ranging from conniving crones to -- yes -- a giant white radish. The fantasy logic at times rivals Lewis Carroll's in his Alice books (a clear influence on Miyazaki). The emotional logic resembles Carroll, too -- like Alice, this young girl can really think on her feet.

Miyazaki gives you almost too much to look at, yet it is never enough. The delicate wash of imagery in a sequence like the one in which a spectral train moves along tracks submerged in water gives way to colors as eye-poppingly sharp as M&Ms. Unlike even the best American animators -- or just plain filmmakers, for that matter -- Miyazaki doesn't gloss over the terrors of childhood, which here yield their own disquieting beauty. He respects the deep silences of his story, as well as its cacophonies. (The soundtrack is every bit as inventive as the visuals.) Very young children are apt to be frightened by this film, but older ones will recognize in Miyazaki, as with all great fabulists, a kindred spirit. (2 hrs. 2 mins.; PG) — PETER RAINER

Opens September 20
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Photo courtesy of Nibariki/ Buena Vista Pictures.

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