In theaters.

I usually include a brief summary of the premise when I write about movies, but I haven’t a clue how to manage that with Paprika. The brilliant but bizarre anime feature slips in and out of reality without notice. The plot twists frenetically, the characters take on multiple guises, and the imagery challenges Western expectations about what animation can accomplish.

Only ninety minutes in length, Paprika feels longer, not because it drags (it doesn’t) but because it’s so rich and dense and stimulating. It’s the kind of movie that demands that you give yourself over to it, that you accept its phantasmagorical world and let go of any preconceived notions you might have had about where the story will take you—and that kind of aesthetic submersion is thrilling. Once Paprika was over, I immediately wanted to watch it again.

So the premise, well … I’ll do the best I can. A high-tech company has developed a machine that allows people to enter the dreams of others. Its developers envision it as a therapeutic tool, but when someone steals the device, hacks into the dreams of a few highly disturbed individuals, and disseminates their madness into other people’s minds, a dream-delving girl named Paprika must restore order.

But who or what is Paprika? And how can anyone tell fantasy from reality once the dream machine’s power has been unleashed? To be honest, I’m not particularly interested in those questions, and to my relief, neither is Paprika. Based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, the movie takes on the form of a sci-fi reality-bender, but at heart it has less in common with those masturbatory, there-is-no-spoon blowouts than it has with Langston Hughes asking what happens to a dream deferred.

All of the principal characters—from the middle-aged police detective to the stiffly professional female therapist to the wheelchair-bound CEO—have made concessions and born disappointments over the course of their lives (haven’t we all?), and as their conscious and unconscious minds melt into each other, those denied, forgotten dreams resurface in unpredictable ways.

The result is a dazzling, hallucinatory spectacle of imagination, for director Satoshi Kon has taken full advantage of the limitless visual possibilities animation offers. In one central recurring sequence, a mad parade of frogs and china dolls and kitchen appliances clamors across the landscape—childlike but far too eerie and unsettling to hold childlike innocence. Only animation could create a film of such fantastic, intoxicating surreality.

Yet Paprika is also a loving tribute to movies in general. The police detective turns out to be a devoted cinephile, so his dreams nod at everything from Roman Holiday to The Shining to The Greatest Show on Earth. At first, it’s merely cute, but as the movie progresses, it becomes a fascinating exploration of how movies affect our fantasies, like that famous Wim Wenders line about how America has “colonized our subconscious.” What is America if not Audrey Hepburn and Stephen King and big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas?

Such touchstones are interspersed in the deliciously alien dreamscapes of Paprika, creating grace notes of familiarity among the exotic cacophony. We have the characters, too—expressively drawn and convincingly human—to serve as our guides. And that, in the end, is what makes Paprika so enchanting. The animation is stunning, but the recognizable humanity underneath is what makes it come alive.

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