What's most remarkable about Spirited Away is how it ever got released worldwide at all, notably in America. At the time of its Japanese theatrical run in 2001 (where it outgrossed Hayao Miyazaki's own Princess Mononoke to become Japan's most successful film), the Disney-Ghibli deal was on uncertain terms, at best. Despite a successful video release of Kiki's Delivery Service, Mononoke failed to find an audience theatrically (even its video/DVD sales, although considerably more successful, weren't good enough in Disney's eyes), and consequently, Castle in the Sky's upcoming video release was put on hold. In fact, it seemed as though Disney was reconsidering distributing the rest of Miyazaki's films worldwide out of fear that they would fail to find an audience. Enter John Lasseter of Pixar Animation Studios, a longtime friend and admirer of Hayao Miyazaki, who often uses the master's works as inspiration for Pixar's own productions, such as Toy Story and Monsters Inc. Dissatisfied at the way Miramax marketed Mononoke, he felt that Miyazaki's movies deserved better attention, so, thanks to persistent campaigning on his behalf (as well as that of Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki), Disney finally decided to purchase Spirited Away's rights for theatrical distribution.
Prior to this, Disney's three dubs for Ghibli had been helmed by experienced voice director Jack Fletcher, all of which, despite being hotly debated, found their share of loyal fans and were considered some of the better English dubs for Anime. Either because Fletcher was busy with other projects or Miyazaki felt that, since Lasseter campaigned for his newest movie he should work on it himself, work on the dub for Spirited Away was produced in-house at both Disney and Pixar. Their crew included a scriptwriting team, Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt, voice director Kirk Wise (co-director for Disney's own Beauty and the Beast and the underrated Hunchback of Notre Dame). By way of coordination between Ghibli and Lasseter's watchful eye, an English dub was recorded in 2002, and briefly screened in theaters. As anticipated, Spirited Away's financial returns in America were only miniscule (although in all fairness, it did earn more than Mononoke, a total of approximately $10 million), but critics were enthusiastic about the film, and it even earned Miyazaki his first official Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. This move caught everyone by surprise; in fact, it prompted Disney to release the rest of his catalog stateside. So in a way, without this dub (or rather, the Oscar), who knows what would have happened to Ghibli's chances of having its works distributed worldwide.
There's no denying that Spirited Away is a fabulous dub; the efforts that have gone into translating this difficult tale for audiences are very much deserving of praise. And yet, Spirited Away's dub, like any of the other Disney-Ghibli tracks, has its share of vocal detractors. There have been complaints from anonymous Anime fans about the occasional liberties taken with some parts of the dialogue, never mind that it was under the approval of Ghibli. Some have even expressed their detestation of the vocal choices and occasional additional lines, claiming they ruin the film. This love-hate atmosphere isn't much different from the reception that any of the other Disney-Ghibli dubs receive. Some of the praise the dub has received, too, is a bit backhanded. Some say that this is the only Ghibli movie that can be watched in English, stating that the other dubs are trash by comparison. Others say that it's the best of the dubs. This extreme kind of hype has somewhat softened my appreciation for Spirited Away's English track, for I really wouldn't quite go that far. Any of the other dubs by Disney have their share of appealing performances and excellent qualities, and to dismiss them all in favor of this one seems somewhat unfair. Based on that, Spirited Away isn't one of my favorite Ghibli-Disney dubs... but that isn't to say that I dislike it. On the contrary. What you will be reading about the dub is mostly favorable, but you won't find any comparisons to the other Ghibli tracks here, as each should stand on their own individually.
The vocal cast for Spirited Away's dub doesn't rely much on big-star names; several of the actors/actresses have previously done work for several other Disney projects. I often hear that having only name actors distract from the overall dub, but this is just subjective. As long as the actors perform well, it doesn't matter whether they're famous or not.
CHIHIRO (Daveigh Chase) -- I'm of two minds here. Vocally, Chase is fine for the part, sounding appropriately like a ten-year-old (it is interesting to note that around the same time this dub was recorded, she was involved in another Disney production, Lilo and Stitch). However, her performance is a bit of a mixed bag. When Chihiro is talking normally or being emotionally upset, Chase is fine. Unfortunately, most of her early scenes require her to scream half of her lines. It gets rather annoying after a while, to the point where one wishes she could have toned it down by a notch. Her "whiney" moments are similarly overdone; although this is par for the character, it doesn't necessarily make for a particularly pleasant listen. Whether this makes or breaks the dub for you depends on your tolerance level.
HAKU (Jason Marsden) -- One of the biggest complaints I hear about this dub is the voicing of Haku, the mysterious boy character who sometimes shifts into dragon form; there are people who say that Marsden sounds too mature for the part. However, this is fatuous criticism; Marsden has had experience playing younger-sounding teenagers prior to this (remember Max from A Goofy Movie?), and there's no clear evidence in the story how old Haku is supposed to be. As such, there is some flexibility in how the character can be voiced, provided, of course, that it sounds "young" enough. That aside, what makes Marsden's performance as Haku is his actual acting. He does a great job at imbuing Haku's mysterious nature and calm, composed attitude without sounding monotonous. His scenes with Chihiro are similarly well-handled, coming across as very natural. I had no major problems with him.
YUBABA/ZENIBA (Suzanne Pleshette) -- In evaluating the performance of these two characters, it is important to mention that they are twins. The former, Yubaba, is a greedy, self-centered enchantress obsessed with only money and her titanic(!) baby, while the latter, Zeniba, is (eventually revealed to be) gentle and quite content to live a more simple life. It is a shame that Pleshette is no longer with us, as her performance as these two characters fill the now-expected trait of a performer "stealing the show". Her approach to these two characters goes like this: Yubaba is given a gravelly, throaty voice, while Zeniba sounds more light in tone. Anyone familiar with her vocal performance as the ruthless Zira in The Lion King II: Simba's Pride will recognize some elements of that character in Yubaba's voice, but Pleshette wisely avoids making her a total monster, instead portraying her as a genuinely stern, mean-spirited figure eager to see Chihiro fail at any cost. On the other hand, as Zeniba, Pleshette initially makes her somewhat sinister (as her initial appearance suggests), but toward the end, she gets more soft-spoken and kindly. The tone of her voice in these moments are very much the kind that would make the viewer want to call her "Granny" just as Chihiro does. A praiseworthy performance all around, and the highlight of the dub.
LIN (Susan Egan) -- Lasseter has said that Egan was one of his favorite Disney voices, and as such he thought of her when casting this role. Indeed, prior to playing the somewhat gruff woman worker who gradually warms to Chihiro, Egan has voiced a similar kind of character in Disney's Hercules. Of course, Disney fans know her better as Belle in the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast. No, she doesn't sing in this role (that is saved for Porco Rosso), but Egan does do a fine job of establishing Lin with the sort of "tough-as-nails" attitude her character requires. Her later scenes where she becomes friendlier with Chihiro provide Egan the opportunity to drop her "mask" and speak very naturally. This effectively conveys her transformation as a person. Egan doesn't overact, either, in the moments when she sounds exasperated (such as when Lin informs about No Face's rampage through the bathhouse). Very nice all around.
KAMAJI (David Ogden Stiers) -- For the character of the six-armed, spider-like man who operates the boiler, Disney sought to cast their "good-luck charm". Stiers has become quite a Disney veteran what with his performances as Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast, Ratcliffe from Pocahontas, and the Archdeacon from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, his Kamaji sounds nothing at all like these aforementioned roles; in fact, one doesn't even realize that it is him. That only displays how versatile a performer he really is. Aside from sounding gruff (not exaggeratedly so), Stiers effectively makes one guess what this character's motivations are through the ambiguity he initially provides the character. He even sounds appropriately bossy when he orders the little soot sprites to stoke the fire. As Kamaji comes to take Chihiro under his wing, though, Stiers changes his tone into one of nuanced warmth and gentleness. This balance between uncertainty and geniality defines both the character and how impactful Stiers' performance truly is.
CHIHIRO'S PARENTS (Lauren Holly, Michael Chiklis) -- These two appear only at the beginning of the movie, spend most of it being pigs, and then appear again at the end. Unlike, say, Kiki's parents, however, these two have a bit more screentime and are more active in terms of forwarding the plot, so their performances are more distinctive. Holly and Chiklis are both very fitting and definitely come across as the sort of ignorant parents any girl would be unhappy to have. It is also interesting to note that for the scene where they eat the forbidden foods at the restaurant, Holly actually took a bite from an apple while delivering her lines (a trick that Cloris Leachman also used for Dola in Castle in the Sky during the scene where she gorges down food).
ASSISTANT MANAGER (John Ratzenberger) -- If Stiers was Disney's good luck charm, then Ratzenberger is Pixar's. It's probably for this reason that he was cast as the Assistant Manager of the Bath House. Audiences have grown accustomed to hearing Ratzenberger in just about every Pixar production, so why not at least one Ghibli dub? For the most part, it works pretty well, although it is a little hard not to think of Ratzenberger's other characters (notably Hamm from Toy Story) while hearing him speak for this character, because it sounds a bit too recognizable. Not that he does a bad job; Ratzenberger doesn't throw away any lines and sounds appropriately stern and uptight (save for when he is delivering a song about No Face, which is spoken instead of sung). He even gets a one-liner after being coughed-up by No Face "Now that's an esophagus!" Even so, one gets the feeling that Lasseter cast Ratzenberger as the character just to give him another cameo role. That's probably my only quibble; otherwise it's a solid performance.
BOH (Tara Strong) -- We never see the face of Yubaba's gargantuan baby until about three-quarters of the way through the film, and even then he spends most of the rest of the movie transformed into a chubby rodent. An interesting thing to note about this particular performance is that Miss Strong had previously voiced Ashitaka's sister Kaiya in Princess Mononoke. This role is quite a departure for her; here she has the difficult task of mimicking an infant's voice and talking somewhat like one. She does this surprisingly well, to the point where you don't realize that it is a woman pretending to be an infant.
NO FACE -- When we first meet No Face, he is a mute figure; midway through he makes exotic grunting noises as his form of communication. From what I understand, these are in the Japanese version too. Later on, when No Face consumes both a little green frog (quaveringly voiced by Bob Bergen) and the Assistant Manager, he speaks with both character's voices, occasionally altering between the two. This is handled very well, particularly when the Assistant Manager and Frog's voices are combined for at least one line.
Most of the other cast members include traditional voice actors such as Colleen O'Shaughnessy, Mona Marshall, Candi Milo, Paul Eiding, Jim Ward, and Phil Proctor. Even Sherry Lynn, who played minor roles in Kiki and Mononoke, gets to have some lines. Disney dubs have always been skillful handling the incidental character voices and "walla" scenes, and this is no exception.
Vocal performance aside, the English script by the Hewitts deserves mention. Under Lasseter's supervision, their task was to stay faithful to Miyazaki's screenplay, while making it accessible to American audiences. They managed this very well for the most part, although purists have made noise over the occasional added-in line. Among these complaints include a line where Chihiro identifies a red building as a bath house in a scene which had no dialogue. Both Lasseter and the Hewitts stood behind their decision, stating that American audiences wouldn't recognize it otherwise.
This is not the only case of added-in dialogue. There's also one instance where Chihiro identifies a soaring white dragon as Haku when she does not do it until much later in the original. More controversial were the addition of two lines for the end of the film, which are an exchange between Chihiro and her father. This was done because, at the time of Spirited Away's premiere, Japanese audiences were dissastisfied with the original ending, feeling that something was lacking. Even so, there are purists who declare that these extra lines ruin the film and that Lasseter and the Hewitts were only looking to dumb down a masterpiece. (Ghibli fan dballred has said he despises this dub for those added-in lines alone.) As with the bath-house line, though, the creators stand behind their decision, stating that they felt that Chihiro's spiritual journey did not feel complete. Regardless of what naysayers claim, the fact remains that Ghibli and Miyazaki all had the final say in any changes, and they approved Lasseter and the Hewitts' efforts unanimously. What makes their script work is in how natural and fluent the dialogue flows; aside from a few stilted moments here and there (including one grating moment where Chihiro has to shout a very fast line at her transformed parents), the dialogue is well written and carefully synchronized with the lip movements.
As mentioned, Spirited Away is not my favorite Ghibli-Disney dub, but I do have to tip my hat to the efforts of everyone combined for producing it, but more importantly, for paving the way for Miyazaki's works to see the light of day stateside. Despite the ocasional quibble from naysayers, there are loyal fans who stand behind the dub, recognizing the care and work that went into it. More importantly, Miyazaki has stated that his films are meant to be viewed not with obscuring subtitles, but in one's native tongue. In fact, in a recent interview with ScreenCrave, he has said about the Disney dubs of his movies: "I think they have always done a good job," adding particularly about this one, "I think Spirited Away was a very difficult film to understand, but I think they did the best they could; I think they did a good job with it. I don’t really feel critical of the English version."