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The Making of Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" -- Part 3

The Making of Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" -- Part 3

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Japan loved it. France loved it. But Disney didn't want it. At least, that was seemingly the buzz heard around the Disney studios. The studio that had entered into a distribution deal with Studio Ghibli in 1996 to expand Miyazaki's films now felt that Miyazaki's works just weren't "American" enough for the youth who seemed to crave sugar and fast-paced video games and movies. Maybe it was just cold feet, but the Mouse House was probably stinging from their previous attempt to bring Hayao Miyazaki's works to the big screen. That was in 1999, with the previous Japanese box-office champ "Princess Mononoke."

After the huge buzz the film received, Disney seemed sure that they could sell the tale about a fantasy set in a time where man and nature were at odds. However, there was some dissension on Disney's part. Where the most violent action in any of their recent films had been the death of Mufasa in "The Lion King," Disney got scared when they saw what was in "Princess Mononoke." In the film, hatred comes in the form of writhing tentacles that consume creatures and turn them into nightmarish beings. Human arms and heads are decapitated in battle, and a girl cleans poison from the wound from her adopted wolf mother and turns to show blood on her face. The very idea that they could classify this as a Disney film weighed heavily on their minds.

Disney got a case of cold feet way back in 1988, when there was debate on whether or not to release "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" under the Disney banner. The film was eventually released as a Touchstone Picture. Disney took this cue and decided to have "Princess Mononoke" released as a Miramax picture. With an English dub script penned by famed writer Neil Gaiman (famed for writing the DC Comics/Vertigo graphic novel Sandman), and talent such as Billy Crudup, Clair Danes and Billy Bob Thornton for the voices, Disney felt they had something on their hands that could work.

It would have worked had it not been for the one area that is considered a hot spot for Disney, as well as Miramax (come Oscar time): promotion. Back in 1999, only a few people knew or had heard anything about "Princess Mononoke." But while Buena Vista had done a good job in France on promotion, there was next to nothing for American audiences. In a culture that had seen the early 90s as an animation renaissance, the latest animated films in release had once again become classified as being "for kids." Many people know that it is hard to sell the concept of an animated film, and very few actually try to stray from the American formula that has been copied many times by Disney's competitors. "Princess Mononoke" was being billed as a serious animation piece. But even moreso, Miramax and Disney were mainly booking the film in small venues such as art house theatres. While Disney had released "Tarzan" that summer in close to 1500+ theatres, Mononoke barely cracked 300 screens. The final tally after all this was only $2.5 million, which many blamed on a marketplace that just wasn't ready for Miyazaki (but they sure seemed ready to embrace Pokemon).

That $2.5 million must have been on many people's minds when they viewed "Spirited Away." Just looking at it, they could probably tell that it wouldn't be as violent as "Princess Mononoke" (no weapons are brandished and such), but there were several instances that must have thrown them for a loop. Consider the following from "Spirited Away":

1) There are no song and dance numbers in the film.

2) Chihiro, the lead heroine, doesn't have cute little sidekicks to get her out of some situations. Some things she has to do on her own.

3) Some characters are seen smoking cigarettes.

4) Various characters are introduced as spirits of water, radishes, etc.

5) No one is purely good or wholly evil. Everyone thinks what they're doing is right.

6) The film is over 2 hours long.

Early word back in August of 2001 had people quite upset by this. At the rate Disney was taking with their deal with Studio Ghibli, their grandchildren would STILL be waiting for Miyazaki's titles to cross the Pacific. The executives seemed unlikely to budge, if not for one man.

If there's one person who could change their minds, it would be John Lasseter. Lasseter, as you all know, had helped to define computer animation in 1995 with PIXAR Studio's film Toy Story. What was also known to many was that Lasseter was a huge Miyazaki fan, and he and his staff had often sat down and slipped in some Studio Ghibli laserdiscs when they hit story problems. It was also no surprise that Lasseter was considered a close personal friend to Miyazaki. In fact, the first viewing of "Spirited Away" in the USA was in PIXAR's screening room. After seeing the film, Lasseter was ecstatic. He even appeared at a showing of the film at the San Francisco International Film Festival (where the film won the Audicence Award). Upon hearing his reaction to the film, some at Disney asked Lasseter if he'd be interested in trying to bring "Spirited Away" to an American audience. Lasseter said he had a busy schedule (being executive producer on several PIXAR projects as well as director on their 2005 release "Cars"), but agreed to executive produce the English dub.

Soon, several others began to join the fray. "Beauty and the Beast" co-director Kirk Wise and Producer Donald Ernst ("Fantasia 2000," "Aladdin") soon joined Lasseter.

For voice talent, the cast consisted of Daveigh Chase (Chase had voiced Lilo for Disney's "Lilo & Stitch"), Susan Egan (Megara from "Hercules"), David Ogden Stiers (A Disney mainstay in voice talent), and John Ratzenberger (considered by John Lasseter as his "good luck charm"). With the cast and talent in place, word began to spread around the net. But at first, the buzz was light. Disney had already begun to push their upcoming fall films, but the only trace that "Spirited Away" was coming was in a small scrolling section of their movie page on Disney.com. The promotions were also quite trying, as Disney had sidelined their homepage for "Spirited Away" and hidden it in the confines of Buena Vista's many labyrinths. While homepages for films like "Signs" and "Sweet Home Alabama" were clearly displayed, it was only through some people's curiosity that the "Spirited Away" homepage could be found.

Early screenings had been positive, and a showing at the El Capitan Theatre where Miyazaki would appear sold out quickly. Disney sent a print to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Lasseter and Miyazaki attended, along with voice actors Daveigh Chase and Jason Marsden. Sneak preview passes were distributed in large cities such as New York and Chicago for showings almost a week in advance of the film's release date. Finally, on September 20, 2002, Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" premiered in limited distribution. Within days, the website rottentomatoes.com had posted reviews that were the most glowing of the year. With a 100% positive for the ratings, the film became the most positively reviewed film of the year (one of the only other films to reach this level was 1999's "Toy Story 2"). With an average box-office take the first week, some hoped for the best. Disney would go on and continue to release "Spirited Away" to more cities, and eventually word of mouth would spread.

Many of Miyazaki's fans hoped that the film would eventually reach the level of promotion that they had seen that summer for "Lilo & Stitch," with billboards on buses, and multiple TV advertisements. Surely Disney would have learned from their past mistakes, right?

Am I right, people?

Do you want to buy this great DVD as well as help support JimHillMedia.com? Then order your copy of "Spirited Away" from Amazon.com by clicking the link to the right.

Your cost will (unfortunately) remain the same (though it is currently 25% off!) But - if you go there through us - we get a tiny cut of what you spend. So if you're planning on picking up the DVD, help keep Jim Hill behind the computer where he belongs and order a copy of "Spirited Away" or the three-pack featuring "Spirited Away," "Castle in the Sky," and "Kiki's Delivery Service" (at 29% off!) through the link to the right.

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