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Oscar-winning anime
returns to theaters

April 3, 2003
By Franklin Harris

I'm happy to report that my Oscar prediction for best animated feature was wrong. "Spirited Away" won, and Disney responded by releasing it in more than 700 theaters. The week before the Academy Awards ceremony, it played in just seven.

Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning ''Spirited Away'' is filled with magical characters.
Photo © Copyright Walt Disney
Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning ''Spirited Away'' is filled with magical characters.
The DVD arrives in stores on April 15, but you still should take the family to see "Spirited Away" in a theater. I saw it (for the second time) last weekend, and the audience was enthralled. Normally fidgety children stayed interested despite the film's epic running time of two hours and 12 minutes.

The story begins with a girl named Chihiro, who isn't at all happy about moving to a new town and going to a new school. On the way to their new home, Chihiro and her parents stop at what appears to be an abandoned theme park, her parents lured by the smells coming from a seemingly deserted food stand.

At nightfall, however, Chihiro discovers that the way home has disappeared and that her parents have turned (literally) into pigs.

She is trapped in a realm of spirits.

To avoid being turned into a pig herself, Chihiro goes to work for Yubaba, a witch who runs the local bathhouse, where the spirits come to relax. While at the bathhouse, Chihiro makes friends and faces hardships as she tries to find a way to rescue her parents and return to the human world.

The story is deceptively simple, part "Alice in Wonderland" and part parable about courage and hard work. The difference is that master director Hayao Miyazaki tells the story with such remarkable imagery and attention to detail.

Miyazaki's cast of bizarre creatures, ranging from river spirits and frog spirits to stink spirits and radish spirits, is magical even to Japanese eyes, but it seems especially exotic here in the West.

A few of Miyazaki's other films have been released in the United States, including "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Princess Mononoke." While Miyazaki has never made a bad film, "Spirited Away" is easily among his best works, ranking behind only his masterpiece, "My Neighbor Totoro."

If he never made another film, Peter Jackson would be well remembered as the man who did justice to J.R.R. Tolkien and brought Middle Earth to life on screen. There are worse reputations to have. Nevertheless, Jackson is going to tempt fate by remaking an undisputed classic.

For years, Jackson dreamed of remaking "King Kong." Others had tried — the name Dino De Laurentiis leaps to mind — and failed, but he thought he knew how to do it right. For one thing, he thought "Kong" should be a period piece, set during the same time as the 1933 original produced by RKO Radio Pictures.

Jackson wrote a script, which, according to various Internet gossips, was excellent, and he took it to Universal.

Universal turned Jackson down. After all, Disney's remake of "Mighty Joe Young" was a flop.

That, however, was before Jackson made "The Lord of the Rings," which turned him from a cult figure to a critical and box-office king.

So, Universal has revived Jackson's "King Kong" remake and hopes to get it into theaters by late 2005.

Now, remakes are always risky business. For every "The Thing" and "The Fly," two remakes that far surpass the originals, there is an endless parade of ill-conceived retreads like Gus Van Sant's "Psycho" and Jan de Bont's "The Haunting." But at least it's a fair bet that Jackson's remake can't turn out any worse than did Dino's 1976 attempt.

As Dino himself said, "When the monkey die, the people gonna cry."

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