With her parents transformed into pigs after straying into what seems to be an abandoned theme park, a spoilt ten year-old girl takes a job in a bathhouse belonging to a wizened old crone and vows to deliver her family from its plight.
We're all used to the Hollywood ballyhoo that accompanies the release of a new cartoon. But, for once, the fuss is entirely justified (and not a merchandising opportunity in sight), as Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece has already notched up the notable double of the Golden Bear at Berlin (which it shared with Bloody Sunday) and an Academy Award.
It has also broken all Japanese box office records, becoming the first film to open in the States having already racked up $200 million. For this UK release, subtitled and dubbed options are available, depending on the venue. Pixar's John Lasseter has handled dubbing duties with typical sensitivity and, thus, opened up this magical experience to young and old alike.
Owing as much to Eastern mythology as to the works of Lewis Carroll or Mervyn Peake, this is an epic with a decidedly personal touch. The plot is gloriously labyrinthine and, as in most Miyazaki films, the quest element is key. But it's subservient to the themes of self-discovery and the value of relationships and, consequently, the tone and scale of the action feels much closer to the little-seen My Neighbour Totoro than the overrated Princess Mononoke.
There are still numerous flights of fancy, however, as characters constantly shift shapes - Chihiro's parents turn into pigs, the evil Yubaba into a sinister bird, the timid No Face into a rampaging carnivore, Okutaresama the malodorous monster into a benign river spirit, and the kindly but mysterious Haku into a dragon. Then there's the spider-like boilerman, Kamaji, and his scurrying soot-ball assistants, who help Chihiro escape the forbidding bathhouse on a ghostly railway.
But what really fires the imagination is the beauty and ingenuity of the wonderland that lies at the end of a tunnel leading off from the quiet country road where Chihiro and her parents get lost. Moreover, the fact that Miyazaki and his team hand-draw the images before they're digitally coloured and animated gives them an artistry that has been woefully lacking from so many recent American features.
Despite a dip midway through, this is a captivating fantasy that sets a new benchmark for animation.