A 10-year-old girl is swept into a fantastic world of monsters, witches and spirit-beings, and is forced to rescue her parents and grow up in the process.
Director Hayao Miyazaki's story centers on a mystical bath house -- a business run by a powerful witch named Ubaba, who services the myriad spirits of nature who need refreshment and rejuvenation. The story starts when a young girl, Chohiro, who unwittingly follows her parents through an ancient tunnel which leads to a gorgeous valley.
Chohiro senses something is not right, but her parents continue into the valley, where they discover an empty town. Upon finding a restaurant, they find it filled with trays of luxurious food. Her parents begin to eat ravenously and are slowly transformed into pigs.
Scared, the 10-year-old Chohiro runs into the street and notices that the town is coming to life -- spirit shapes begin to gather, as though another overlapping world is slowly becoming visible as the sun goes down.
With some help from a friendly spirit named Haku, Chohiro is safely brought into the bath house. There she is forced to make a deal with Ubaba: she will work in the bath house in exchange for her name. Her real name is taken from her, and her name is changed to 'Zen'. For the rest of the film she must learn to cope with a strange new world in an effort to rescue her parents.
'Spirited Away' is beautifully animated and scored, and director Miyazaki captures Chohiro's state of being caught on a 'cusp' between childhood and the very beginning of maturity.
Ironically, this fantastic spiritual world represents a brutal wakeup call to the young girl. No one is desperate to please her, and most of the spirits (in corporeal form as frogmen and other fantastic beings) treat her with open contempt. She learns to work hard, be kind, courteous and cope with worry.
For children and adults who can maintain a sense of child-like wonder, Spirited Away is worth watching. It can be saccharine and schmaltzy at some points (it has an environmental message that seems a bit silly at one point) but overall it was visually spectacular and touching.