Japan's Studio Ghibli may not be as famous as Disney, but it's more than managed to hold its own in the ever-changing world of animation. While the Mouse House has been struggling of late as Mickey's magic has turned into Pluto's poop, the Japanese animators have been going from strength to strength, elbowing past the likes of Lilo & Stitch, Ice Age and Treasure Planet to land the Best Animated Film Oscar at the 2003 Academy Awards.
The story of a wilful 10-year-old girl called Chihiro who stumbles into a parallel universe of ghosts, dragons and monsters, Spirited Away delivers something completely different from the usual 'toon plot. Forced to stand on her own two feet, Chihiro takes a job in the basement of a spa hotel for the gods. There she realises that before she can escape, she must first find her place in this bustling community of spirits.
While American animation emphasises individual success and happy-clappy family values, Hayao Miyazaki is more interested in the Japanese theme of hard graft as the key to personal happiness. It's an idea that dominates the director's other films, from Kiki's Delivery Service to Castle In The Sky. If Miyazaki were to ever remake Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, chances are he'd soon have the pristine heroine down the mines shovelling coal.
Such Eastern quirkiness extends to the dreamlike quality of the animation. Steeped in Japanese mythology, Spirited Away is full of bold, imaginative strokes and characters striking enough to deserve their own spin-off movies. They include a slobbering, Jabba The Hutt-style "stink god" in desperate need of a bath; a talking frog in a kimono; a group of helpful soot creatures; and a trio of bodyless heads that roll around the floor murmuring to themselves.
Then there are the backgrounds. Filled with gorgeous buildings, rolling fields and shimmering lakes, this beautiful, haunting world lies somewhere past the end of the rainbow. See it and marvel.