"Play with me or I'll break your arm."
Released: July 2001
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and Kirk Wise
When you think of fairies, providing that you do think of them, what probably comes to mind is a diminutive and nubile female with butterfly wings who spends her time flitting about fields of flowers and singing happy little songs. When Hayao Miyazaki thinks of fairies, he thinks of something very much different, something older, something a bit more sinister. Miyazaki's fairies are of the medieval type. They are at best nasty pranksters who delight in playing tricks upon unsuspecting humans and at worst they are hateful child abductors and casters of curses.
So it is when Chihiro, the girl protagonist, finds herself transported to the land of the fairies she discovers it is not a very nice place. Her parents are turned to pigs. She is directed by what seems to be a teenage boy to find employment at the bath house of the fairies only to become enslaved by the hag, Yubaba, who runs the place. The other residents of the bath house hate and despise her for being human and the frog overseers are cruel and capricious. Only in the spider like creature that runs the boiler and in the head maid does she find any semblance of kindness.
Miyazaki is great at channeling the fears and hopes of children. All children feel confusion when they don't know the rules of society or why things happen the way they do and they certainly feel they have no control over what happens to them. Parents, of course, provide an anchor and sense of security but when the child is removed from that safety it can be terrifying.
Chihiro is tossed about this world at lightening speed, never really given a chance to make sense of it all. It is only when one of her few friends, Haku, is in deadly peril that she begins to exert herself and take control of the situation. It is then that what were once sinister and threatening creatures begin to become friendly. What was once baffling chaos starts becoming understandable. As Chihiro matures and imposes her will upon her surroundings things begin to take on a rational order.
This is widely regarded as one of the best Ghibli films and I can see why. The animation and visuals are absolutely stunning. The animators were really on top of their game here. The parade of bizarre creatures that inhabit the world of the fairies from the three green disembodied heads, to the giant baby, to the blob creature that wears a mask and devours people whole are all straight out of a high powered acid trip. That these things are brought believably to life is another sign of the total mastery of the medium by the creators.
I've stated in a previous episode that I'm not a big fan of Alice in Wonderland from which this movie draws much inspiration. It's surreal nature led me to describe it to a friend as a "brightly colored nightmare". This is not to say that I can't recognize it's greatness and I understand why this is many people's favorite of the Ghibli movies.