Chihiro in Wonderland

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Where do ghosts, gods, and spirits go when they need a break from the daily grind? "Spirited Away," the new animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, gives the answer: to a bathhouse in Japan where a partly human, partly supernatural staff works hard to give them a relaxing respite.

Not surprisingly, the rules of this otherworldly place are different from our own, based more on spells and sorcery than reason and rationality. And not every worker is there by choice. That's what 10-year-old Chihiro discovers when her family turns down the wrong road while taking her to the first day of school. Quick as a wink, Mom and Dad are turned into pigs and Chihiro is a captive stranger in a very strange land. Even her name has been stolen from her, and finding it again is the only way she can escape.

After years of making films for children, Miyazaki embraced a wider audience with the popular "Princess Mononoke" three years ago, and he does the same here. Taking cues from "Alice in Wonderland," with its dreamlike logic and weird transformations, "Spirited Away" is an allegory on identity and individuality as well as an imaginatively told fantasy. It's also a timely glimpse into contemporary Japanese culture, with revealing references to economic instability and the value of hard work.

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"Spirited Away" is too intense for the youngest viewers, but teenagers will enjoy it – an ill-smelling "stink-god" character is almost worthy of a Kevin Smith gross-out movie – and grown-ups should find it diverting, if not exactly deep. Miyazaki brings a thematic ambition to feature animation that some of Hollywood's cartoonists would do well to learn from.

• Rated PG for cartoonish violence, vulgarity.

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