'Spirited Away' is a dreamlike wonder

"Maybe they'll all fall asleep after the lights go down," snarled the woman sitting beside me at a promotional screening of "Spirited Away." She was referring to the many restless children in the packed theater, many of whom — big surprise — were having trouble on a school night awaiting a 7 p.m. start time.

But there was no need for grumpiness once Hayao Miyazaki's spectacular new Japanese anime feature got under way. For a solid two hours, the only sounds from the audience were murmurs of pure pleasure, occasional gasps and laughter.

Miyazaki, the master animator and director of the enchanting "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Princess Mononoke," leads us through the looking glass as never before in "Spirited Away."

Ten-year-old Chihiro (English-language voice by Daveigh Chase) is worried about acclimating to a new town and school. Before she and her parents arrive at their new house, they take a mystery detour and end up trapped in a dangerous resort for spirits and demons. Chihiro survives as a servant while trying to save her family. The resort is ruled by a powerful witch (Suzanne Pleshette) reminiscent of the squat Queen of Hearts from "Alice In Wonderland." She terrifies her minions — talking frogs, cursed children, living cinders — with dark magic, but in Chihiro she meets her match in willpower and emerging boldness.

The story is one thing. But in conjunction with Miyazaki's startlingly beautiful and emotionally provocative visuals, "Spirited Away" becomes a surrealist wonder, fueled by dream logic and poetic longing. A simple image of a train station's empty benches, suspended in late-afternoon light, proves unaccountably stirring, a touchstone of things lost or of marvels just beyond reach.

Miyazaki's films never stop at their brilliant surfaces. "Spirited Away" is a fairy tale in the classic tradition, a growing-up fantasy riding the rapids of the subconscious.

Tom Keogh: tomkeogh@aol.com.

"Spirited Away"

With the voices of Suzanne Pleshette, David Ogden Stiers, Daveigh Chase. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. 124 Minutes. Rated PG for some scary moments. Neptune Theatre, Uptown.