Watching the Japanese cartoon epic Spirited Away is like strolling into Alice's Wonderland and seeing every wonder sprout up around you as if for the first time. The writer-director, Hayao Miyazaki, is comparable to Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel, rolled into one. He gives viewers the sensation of being present at the creation of a fantasy cosmos as fully alive as it is breathtakingly intricate.

Spirited Away is in the league of E.T., Pinocchio and The Wizard of Oz. And it has an electric serenity, combining contemplation and excitement, that's unique in contemporary motion picture fables. The heroine, Chihiro, starts out as a cranky 10-year-old frightened of her family's relocation to a new suburban town and frantic over the wilting of her first bouquet. Soon, without knowing it, she becomes an adventurer.

In the prologue, her parents stumble upon an apparent abandoned theme park. Actually, they've chanced onto a Coney Island of the mind and soul. At a mysterious food stall, they unknowingly devour the food of the gods - and turn into pigs.

With the help of a mysterious wonder boy named Haku, Chihiro navigates this secret universe, where a zoo-full of phantasms frequent a glitzy hot-springs bathhouse. On a nearby pig farm, the rapacious resort-owner fattens formerly human porkers for the kill, including Chihiro's mother and father. Before she can free them, Chihiro must learn the power of imagination, intuition, empathy - of every inner resource.

As always, Miyazaki locates the intersection of nature and human nature. No matter how harrowing their exploits, his movies remain open-ended and oddly hopeful: Miyazaki's natural gods (and devils) vanished from our world long ago, but their miracles survive within us.

Emotionally, this movie is enthralling. Yet as Chihiro scours the dregs and scales the heights of the bathhouse, the spectacle is also coolly hypnotic. Like Chihiro, you must keep your wits about you to figure out what's going on. Miyazaki has imagined his netherworld so totally that you leave this picture with your appetite sated, your senses sharpened, your mind expanded.

Spirited Away, in style and substance, pays tribute to instinct. Chihiro immediately trusts the cocksure Haku and hangs on to that even when she sees him transformed into a fierce, toothy dragon, and bloodied by a flock of paper birds. (Demon origami - what a concept!)

Miyazaki doesn't nail down intellectual meanings for each new specter and humanoid grotesquerie; instead, he enlists our belief in them as creatures with their own unruly integrity. Kamaji, the boiler-room operator with multiple double-jointed limbs that shoot out like Plastic Man's and operate as arms and legs, gives off an opaque gruffness behind his omnipresent sunglasses. He briskly orders around his uproarious soot-ball labor force - who ant-like carry chunks of coal many times their weight into his furnace - and lays down the law to Chihiro, whose vain request for a job compels the soot-balls to make a momentary work-stoppage. But Kamaji also proves wise and supportive, especially when, without question, he helps Chihiro save the life of her new friend.

The villain of the piece is Yubaba, the bathhouse impresario, an overdressed hag with a battle helmet of white hair, a scimitar-like nose, and a bullet-like mole between her eyes. She looks squat on her feet but can suddenly, frightfully, grow wings and become a flying crone. Miyazaki attacks avarice as well as consumption for its own sake. And Yubaba is hateful because of her greed and her pandering to the gluttony of her customers. But the key to her corruption lies in her need to control everyone, including her huge baby boy "Boh," who has never ventured beyond his nursery because Yubaba has convinced him that it would make him sick.

The movie argues, gently, for openness and honesty. Yubaba wants to keep everything pigeonholed and organized for her own profit - when creatures wander into her quarters, she immediately steals their names and thus their identities. Chihiro, once she gets her bearings, tries to understand every person or creature on his, her or its terms: the "Stink God" who cleans up into a river god; the enigmatic, sometimes cannibalistic "No Face," essentially a mask with a malleable torso; and even Yubaba's identical twin sister, Zeniba. Her insistence on speaking the truth pleases all of them; she finds she can take them at their word.

The crowning glory of this visual masterpiece is that it salutes the powers of language - a theme that its English-language adapters have preserved in their Walt Disney Studios edition, beautifully dubbed with a cast including Daveigh Chase (Lilo of Lilo and Stitch) as Chihiro, David Ogden Stiers as Kamaji, Jason Marsden as Haku, Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis as Chihiro's parents, and, best of all, Suzanne Pleshette as Yubaba and Zeniba.

Spirited Away is about holding on to your name and making it mean something. By the end, Chihiro is synonymous with courage.

Watch Michael Sragow's movie reviews Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. on ABC2 News and online at sunspot.net.

Spirited Away

With voices of Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden, David Ogden Stiers, Michael Chiklis, Lauren Holly

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Released by Disney

Rated PG

Time 130 minutes

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