The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'Spirited Away'
is the first anime
up for an Oscar

February 13, 2003
By Franklin Harris

On Tuesday, "Spirited Away" became the first anime to receive an Academy Award nomination. So, now what?

"Spirited Away," the most recent epic from legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, is one of three Disney-distributed films up for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. The other two are "Lilo and Stitch" and "Treasure Planet." They’re up against "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" and "Ice Age."

Director Hayao Miyazaki's ''Spirited Away'' is the first animated Japanese feature to receive an Academy Award nomination.
Photo © Copyright Walt Disney
Director Hayao Miyazaki's ''Spirited Away'' is the first animated Japanese feature to receive an Academy Award nomination.
Any other year, I’d be cheering for "Lilo and Stitch," which is the first in-house Disney production in years to display any originality. "Treasure Planet," meanwhile, is a mediocre effort that shouldn’t even be nominated.

But "Spirited Away" deserves to be the runaway favorite to win the Oscar. It already has won every other award for animation, including the International Animated Film Society’s Annie Award and the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics’ Choice Award. Film critics at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and a dozen other newspapers named it their No. 1 film of 2002, animated or otherwise.

But film critics and Oscar voters are two different breeds. Oscar voters usually go for movies that are successful at the box office while still appealing to their pretentious yet middlebrow tastes. How else can you explain Best Picture winners like "Dances with Wolves," "Titanic" and "Gladiator"?

(Yes, I am a snob, and I think the last Best Picture winner that deserved to win was "Silence of the Lambs.")

In Oscar terms, "Spirited Away" has two strikes against it.

First, it is anything but pretentious. "Spirited Away" is a simple, "Alice in Wonderland"-like tale of a girl who becomes trapped in a magical world and is forced to take on adult responsibilities to save herself and her parents, who have been turned into pigs by a witch.

Second, and most important, "Spirited Away" isn’t a blockbuster. At its peak, it played in 150 theaters, and it grossed only $5.5 million.

Japanese animation’s popularity in America is growing, but Disney doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Disney was clueless at promoting an earlier Miyazaki film, "Princess Mononoke."

I’ve been critical recently of Disney’s handling of Asian films, but this is Disney’s chance to redeem itself. Disney could rush "Spirited Away" back into theaters with an ad campaign spotlighting the film’s Oscar nomination and other awards.

At the very least, Disney has no excuse to not heavily promote the film’s DVD release on April 15. (Two other Miyazaki films, "Kiki’s Delivery Service" and "Castle in the Sky," also debut on DVD on that date.)

Memo to Disney: Don’t blow it.

As for you, gentle reader, see "Spirited Away" as soon as you can, either in a theater or on home video, whichever opportunity arises.

Speaking of Disney’s treatment of Asian films, "Hero," the all-star action epic I mentioned a few weeks ago as being a film Disney has been slow to distribute in North America, is nominated for Best Foreign Film. I don’t expect it to win, but maybe the nomination will convince Disney to give "Hero" a decent push when it finally does release it.

Genre films did well in other Oscar categories, too. "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" picked up a Best Picture nomination and several technical nods. But its director, Peter Jackson, was snubbed.

Still, there is one "Rings" movie to go, and if Oscar voters are going to reward Jackson’s efforts, it will be for "The Return of the King."

"Road to Perdition," based on the graphic novel, also picked up several nominations, including Paul Newman for Best Supporting Actor.

"Spider-Man," "Minority Report" and "Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones" all received technical nominations. Even "The Time Machine" got a nomination for Best Makeup.

It must have been a bad year for makeup.

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