Everyone loves Miyazaki, and it’s not hard to see why. After seeing a film like Spirited Away, Western animation seems unimaginative and boring. It isn’t, of course. Folks at places like Pixar and Dreamworks are doing great work too, but there are several crucial differences that make the Ghibli films stand out.
- Most Pixar and Dreamworks characters are anthropomorphized animals or machines or imaginary creatures. Characters like Lightening McQueen, or Wall-E, or Shrek, or Po certainly face challenges the audience can relate to, but they don’t have to face them in quite the same way we do. Shrek, after all, is an Ogre, and a rather intimidating one. Wall-E is a robot Swiss Army knife. Chichiro, in contrast, is just a little girl who wakes up frightened and alone in a strange, utterly foreboding world that she never wanted to visit in the first place and in which she has to learn to adapt and survive with little more than her wits and intestinal fortitude to guide her.
- Pixar and Dreamworks worlds are built around a central conceit that’s easy to grasp. Once one has suspended belief, they offer mostly that which is already familiar. The jokes, in fact, often depend upon this recognition. The bugs in Cars are funny precisely because we recognize them as Volkswagen Beetles. And while Nemo may be a fish, he goes to school and follows a routine that’s instantly familiar. The worlds of Spirited Away and My Neigbor Totoro, in contrast, teach us to expect the unexpected. Granted, a bath house would no doubt be more familiar were I raised in Tokyo rather than Texas, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t help me anticipate what No-Face might do next or prepare me for the Catbus. These worlds are magical and enchanting in ways simply inconceivable in a Disney film.
And finally, there are the characters. Protagonists in Western animation have story arcs and are dynamic, but, for the most part, once we know who’s who, characters act in fairly predictable ways. Good guys are good guys, and bad guys are bad guys. Miyazaki’s characters, however, might be both or neither. Sid in Toy Story is going to light the fire cracker just as assuredly as Lucy is going to pull the football out from under Charlie Brown. He’s a villain, and that’s what villains do. Boh is a villain too. In fact, in our first meeting with him in Spirited Away, he’s much like Sid–selfish, self-centered, and wholly intent upon getting his way regardless of the destruction unleashed on those around him. By the end of the film, however, he’s come to act in an entirely different way. And it’s not just the villains either. Haku, in his dragon form, is anything but predictable, and don’t even get me started on Zeniba/Granny and Yubaba. The characters, like the world they inhabit, are simultaneously ugly and beautiful, threatening and peaceful, friend and foe. Miyazaki’s films keep the audience slightly off-balance without becoming discordant, and the result is genius.
Spirited Away is delightful, and I’m glad to have seen it on the big screen as a Fathom Event. Highly recommended. You basically can’t go wrong with Miyazaki and/or Gkids in general, and this one is one of the best of the best.