Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, starring the voices of Rumi Hîragi, Miyu Irino, Takashi Naitô, Mari Natsuki and Yasuko Sawaguchi.

A young girl, lost in a forest, stumbles across a mysterious tunnel entrance. As her foolhardy parents insist on exploring it, she reluctantly follows…

This unsettling scene begins Hayao Miyazaki's stunning cartoon, which arrives in our cinemas draped in awards and critical plaudits.

Chihiro (Hîragi) soon realises that she has been transported to a fantastical new world. What looks like a simple abandoned theme park turns far more sinister as Chihiro's greedy parents are transformed into pigs and mysterious shadows appear floating along the streets of the derelict city.

Chihiro soon realises that she is in a sort of supernatural bath-house, a massive health resort attended by spirits and gods and run by a demented sorceress with an enormous head and a remarkable resemblance to Margaret Thatcher.

The plot follows Chihiro's attempts to escape and rescue her parents, with countless digressions for bizarre incidents and subplots. Many are allegorical – a River God arrives to be cleansed of its pollution and the mysterious No-Face freely distributes gold nuggets to the workers at the baths, leaving grasping chaos in his wake – but all are uniquely imagined and beautifully created by Miyazaki and the animation team at Ghibli Studios.

Fantasies are generally constructed on familiar cultural and historical foundations, Tolkien's roots are in Anglo-Saxon myth, Lewis Carroll's inmathematics and language. The fact that 'Spirited Away's foundations are in a culture that already seems strange to Western eyes makes this fantasyparticularly powerful and evocative.

This overwhelming feeling of strangeness is aided by Miyazaki's superb visuals, which combine wondrous traditional hand-drawn animations with subtle touches of digital colour and computer-generated effects. The sound design is equally sumptuous and absorbing.

The exquisite compositions and arresting images crowd the mind long after the film ends: water gushing from a stone frog's mouth, a Mississippi riverboat ferrying ghosts across a dark river, a submerged railway line carrying a single lonely train.

The only quibble might be with the film's length and occasionally stuttering narrative, but Miyazaki brings passion and sincerity to the screen, avoiding the recent American tendency to litter animated movies with wisecracks so the parents are kept entertained.

Instead, he keeps complete faith in the reality he has created. 'Spirited Away' has the dislocated sensual quality of a dream and the crawling unease of a nightmare. A stunning cinematic achievement.

Luke McManus