Japan's premier animator Hayao Miyazaki is often described as the "Japanese Walt Disney". Over the years, Miyazaki and Isao Takahata's Studio Ghibli has been responsible for countless animated masterpieces. From the earlier Grave of the Fireflies to the more recent Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Studio Ghibli has persistently bestowed audiences with endearing animated features unlike any other. Japanese anime is a genre unto itself. Not being fond of anime can be equated with not being fond of American films. Anime has become far too stereotyped after inane products such as Pokemon and the abysmal Dragon Ball Z. There's such an extensive multiplicity of styles that it's impossible to abhor anime as a whole.
Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (also known by its original foreign title of Tonari no Totoro) is a delightful film, conveying a wonderful story of childhood innocence, fantasy, and spending time with nature. Miyazaki has the ability to keep any viewer of any age entranced in the potentially mundane happenings. The beauty of My Neighbor Totoro is in its willingness to eschew the clichés. American animation is generally dumbed down, spelling out every plot point with extensive explication in the form of banal dialogue. The sharing of information in this film is limited to realistic dialogue between well-built characters as opposed to blatant trite.
The film also transports the audience to a place where there is no evil. Like the majority of Miyazaki's pictures, My Neighbor Totoro never relies on antagonists for the central characters to defeat. Rather than focusing on conflict, this is a story about a wonderful, magical, fantastical episode in the lives of two young children. This sweet, charming and adorable tale is narratively simplistic, but it's a refreshing movie to revisit all these decades later.
Two sisters named Satsuki (voiced by Noriko Hidaka in the original Japanese version and Dakota Fanning in the 2005 Disney dub) and Mei (voiced by Chika Sakamoto in the Japanese version and Elle Fanning in Disney's 2005 version) are moving with their father to the countryside to be near their ailing mother. Almost immediately the girls are delighted with the house and are intrigued by the strange creatures inhabiting the mystical surrounding forests. They meet a large, furry creature (big, cuddly, fluffy and cute - i.e. a living embodiment of any plush toy a child would love) known as Totoro (apparently Mei's mispronunciation for the Japanese word for "troll") with whom they share several magical adventures.
Throughout the film there's a charming assortment of different creatures. From the cute, smaller critter (which has become the Studio Ghibli logo) to the larger, koala-like creature to maniacally-grinning Cheshire Cat-bus.
My Neighbor Totoro is an enthralling, beautiful film crafted by one of the best animation directors of all time. Those familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's other features will be aware of his ability to construct terrific narratives that warm the heart and feed the mind...My Neighbor Totoro is no different. The art and animation found within the film can be described as relatively simple. There are stunning images of glorious vistas to behold, yet the detail is admirably (and effectively) kept to a relative minimum. The lack of realistic niceties enhances the film's atmosphere as simple but meticulous lines are blended with ornate colours to provide an overall visual warmth that establishes the mood perfectly for the story. The music is particularly amazing. There are glorious, atmospheric pieces of music played throughout the film. Much like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro might be read as a metaphor for Japan itself; keen to reconnect with nature and spirit after war and urban life has made society ill. However the congregation of characters aren't allegories: the children behave exactly as regular children do, with that screwed-face mock courage that becomes panic when confronted with a surprise.
Miyazaki never adheres to the clichés we'd witness in an American animated feature. There is no condescension, especially not from the parents who seem supportive of their daughters' joy in the magic only children can see. Satsuki and Mei are encouraged by their dad to show respect for the great camphor tree and the spirits it holds. American animation is uniformly watchable, but it's generally quite formulaic. Miyazaki creates a new set of rules for this film as evident in the parents who never diminish the children finding enjoyment in the critters. If this was an American feature the parents wouldn't believe in the magical entities, leading to a series of gags where Totoro and his wacky sidekicks would land Satsuki in trouble before turning invisible.
The character of Totoro is also an unconventional creation. He merely growls a few simple syllables instead of talking. Had this been American, Totoro would speak with the wisecracking voice of Ray Romano or Eddie Murphy. The cat-bus (that simply purrs throughout the film) would be voiced by John Goodman.
My Neighbor Totoro also never gets bogged down in sentimental claptrapping. The little boy who's visibly interested in Satsuki acts nobly towards her, but is never given a chance to be preposterously heroic. There is no clichéd love story either. Had this been an American animation film he'd have a bigger part and he'd probably save Satsuki and Mei from an evil forest monster voiced by James Woods or Jeremy Irons. Best of all, the fantastical creatures are never proved to be imaginative or real. The viewer is left to decide. And, unlike Disney features, My Neighbor Totoro was never tainted with a string of direct-to-DVD sequels. Had sequels been devised, the first would likely follow Totoro moving to the big city and join the NBA. In the next sequel we'd visit Satsuki as an adult happily married who begins seeing glimpses of Totoro and his critter pals again. At the end of every sequel, everyone would learn a valuable lesson about the meaning of family.
Following its international release, My Neighbor Totoro received its inevitable English dub. But fear is unwarranted...the English dubs are extremely well-produced. Two English dubs are available, both of which are faithful: the story was not altered, and the translation is reportedly very close to the original. For the 2005 Disney version (I didn't have access to the other dub), Dakota and Elle Fanning provide the voices of the two young girls. They both give their characters satisfying exuberance and adequate charm. Tim Daly, Lea Salonga and Pat Carroll also join the voice cast.
There's no denying that My Neighbor Totoro is a cute, sweet fairytale that'll be enjoyed by adults and children alike. However it does take a fairly simplistic approach towards its central ideas, and it feels a tad lightweight when compared to later features such as Spirited Away. This is a remarkable film that never feels the need to explain every detail or dumb down its message. The film made such an impact that Miyazaki chose an image of a cute little critter from the film as the logo for Studio Ghibli.
My Neighbor Totoro is perhaps Miyazaki's most personal film as it reflects his childhood. The film is utterly brilliant, and it's imbued with various cute moments capable of making an audience howl with laughter. Highly recommended!
Trivia fact: Upon theatrical debut the film was shown in a double-feature with the slightly superior Grave of the Fireflies as the distributor apparently thought it unmarketable.
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