Filmmakers, and not just those do animated features, could — and should — take a few lessons in storytelling from Japan's Hayao Miyazaki.

The creator of such animated delights as "My Neighbor Totoro," "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" and "Kiki's Delivery Service" has found a way to tell an engrossing story and still sneak in subtle messages; a fervent environmentalist and humanist, Miyazaki encourages the audience to be kinder to the Earth and to each other.

His latest, the magical fantasy "Spirited Away," may showcase the master animator/filmmaker at the top of his craft. It's perplexing but always enthralling. And it's one of most beautiful animated films in recent memory — one that, refreshingly, doesn't rely on digital trickery.

That said, it's not necessarily family-oriented. The story and characters are peculiar, and there are some images that could scare sensitive young ones. And at more than two hours, it might test their patience as well.

However, animation fans — especially devotees of Japanese anime — are in for a real treat. (This English-language version also involves another animation master, Pixar's John Lasseter, who oversaw the film's dubbing.)

The story echoes "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz" as it follows 10-year-old schoolgirl Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase) when she and her parents move to a new city. Chihiro is at them, and at life in general. En route, the family gets lost, and off the beaten path they find a mysterious temple leading to what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. As it turns out, it's actually an entrance to another world.

In short order, Chihiro's gluttonous parents are transformed into pigs, and Chihiro suddenly finds herself hiding from bizarre animal spirits and other creatures. Fortunately, she finds a sympathetic ear in Haku (Jason Marsden), an enigmatic youth who isn't exactly who or what he appears to be.

It would be unfair to disclose more of the plot; suffice to say that it features several more bizarre but enchanting twists. Unlike his most recent effort, the environmental fantasy "Princess Mononoke," "Spirited Away" also features much more of Miyazaki's trademark whimsical humor.

Miyazaki and his animation team have outdone themselves with the rendering of characters in lush pastels and the backgrounds in tones that resemble watercolors.

Also, the English-language voice cast was well-chosen; the performers don't use the bland monotone delivery that marred the dubbed version of "Princess Mononoke." Chase, also heard as voice of Lilo in "Lilo & Stitch," makes Chihiro distinctive and likable, and the film makes good use of Suzanne Pleshette's throaty delivery (she does, not just one, but two characters).

"Spirited Away" is rated PG for animated violence, some mild vulgar humor (flatulence gags), scattered use of mild profanity (religiously based) and glimpses of nude figures. Running time: 124 minutes.