Reviewby Bamboo Dong,
My Neighbor Totoro
Two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, move to the countryside with their father, a university professor who still commutes to Tokyo every day. Their mother is in the hospital, and while their father is away at work, they are often supervised by their kind neighbors. One day, while her father is working in his study, younger sister Mei spots a mysterious creature and follows it into the forest. There, she tumbles down a hole and meets a large creature named Totoro. Satsuki and Mei learn that the forest near their home is filled with strange and wonderful things, including a cat-shaped bus, and the many beings that help Totoro look over the forest.
In many ways, My Neighbor Totoro is the quintessential representation of Studio Ghibli. Aside from its infinitely marketable critters, and the fact that Totoro graces the logo of the production house, the film embodies many of the qualities that Ghibli films have come to represent over the years. Both in the warmth that permeates every lovingly hand-drawn cel, and the innocence that its characters exude, or even in its accessibility to viewers of all ages, My Neighbor Totoro is Ghibli, and Ghibli is My Neighbor Totoro.
Its characters, the unstoppable sister duo of Satsuki and Mei, are Ghibli girls through and through. They're fearless and confident, unafraid to jump into rabbit holes and crawl through brambles, and certainly unafraid to embark on new journeys. Their response to the world is one of curiosity and wonder, and they're as unfazed by a life-changing move into the countryside as an encounter with a giant roaring beast. And when they're asked to grow up a little too soon, faced with the possibility of losing their mother, they find a way to be resourceful and soldier on, because Ghibli girls are pragmatic and self-reliant. If one must describe them using modern buzzwords, they are both certainly empowered, if simply because it never occurs to them that there could possibly ever be things outside their reach.
The notion that children don't need to be coddled or over-protected is reflected in the actions of the adults, as well. The girls' father doesn't panic when Satsuki starts shaking the porch post, or when Mei declares that she's going to go exploring. He doesn't fuss when he sees them alone at the bus stop in the pouring rain. Most importantly—he believes them when they talk about Totoro and Catbus. Whether or not he truly believes, or whether he just chalks it up to imagination (he alludes to Totoro as being something only children can see) is irrelevant—that he gives them the license to imagine and act as they please, without his outside influence, is. We need only to compare this to Western media, with its overbearing parents and high-strung mothers, to see how different it is. It's not that Ghibli kids are allowed to do whatever they want—they're all responsible, thoughtful characters—it's that they're personifications of the idea that children are much smarter and more sensible than adults give them credit for.
My Neighbor Totoro isn't like many kids movies in that it doesn't have a bad guy at any point in time (unless you want to count intangibles like "fear" as an antagonist). It's not even an adventure film in the sense that the characters are migrating from Point A to Point B. Rather, it's a window into the girls' lives, that happens to open upon a very magical and whimsical time. Encountering Totoro and his companions, racing across electricity lines in a meowing bus, dancing to make seeds sprout—it's as much of a delight to audiences as it is to the characters experiencing it. One would be hard-pressed not to walk away from the movie with a smile and renewed vigor for the world, and for adults, maybe even a bittersweet tinge of nostalgia for their youth.
It helps that everything else about the movie is spot on—the Disney dub featuring the Fanning sisters is charming and full of life, and the sisters couldn't be more perfect for the roles. Tim Daly's stint as the affable dad is wonderful, and I dare say I prefer his lighter tenor to Shigesato Itoi's gruffer voice. Sometimes I find Disney's star-studded dubs to be a little distracting, since I can't help but envision the actors' and actresses' faces in my head when they're speaking, but I found this one to be delightful, in part because I don't think the Fannings' voices are as audibly unique as, say, Gillian Anderson or Claire Danes. And while I don't think there was any obvious benefit to casting real sisters, the age-appropriate choices worked in the dub's favor. Chika Sakamoto is wonderful as Mei, but she was 29 at the time of My Neighbor Totoro, while Elle Fanning was only eight (Dakota was 12). You need only to listen to English-Mei's boisterous laughter and the slightly-less-enunciated way she yells "Totoro!" to appreciate the difference. (For those who want a visual reference, you can actually see the sisters in the "Behind the Microphone" featurette, and it's a lot of fun.) Thankfully, for those watching the Japanese language track, the disc includes literal English subtitles (rather than the 'dubtitling' problem that plagues many other Disney Ghibli releases).
Incidentally, one of the best things about this Blu-ray and DVD release aside from the film itself is the extensive library of bonus features that are bundled with it, including "The Locations of Totoro," which I enjoyed immensely. In it, we get to see some of the real life locations that inspired the scenes in the film, as well as meet some of the locals whose passions about nature and history conservation are carried over into the film. There's a shot where we get to step inside a preserved house from the late-1950s and learn from a local, now-elderly volunteer how to use the wood-burning stove to cook rice. Bonus features are usually more informative than emotional, but this one in particular evokes a similar nostalgia and reverence for rural living that resonates throughout the film.
Given the marketing success of My Neighbor Totoro, especially its iconic titular character, it's surprising that it wasn't a commercial success when it was first released. It's even more surprising to learn that Miyazaki and his team knew that it wouldn't be a success right from the get-go, but were still given the green light to pursue their vision. And yet, it's rise from humble expectations makes a certain kind of sense. The film is simple and unassuming, with neither a villain nor an epic adventure. Its greatest source of tension is when Mei gets lost on her way to the hospital. In a sense, it's like a good bedtime story. It's rife with imagination and charm, but grounded in the warmth that only comes with family and familiarity. Few films are able to capture the simultaneous innocence and strength of childhood as well as My Neighbor Totoro, and it's likely this will be the benchmark for decades to come.
Overall : A+
Overall (dub) : A+
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A+
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : B+
+ Whimsical and wildly creative; perfect for young children and imaginative adults alilke
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