My Neighbor Totoro (1988) / Animated Fantasy
aka Tonari no Totoro
MPAA Rated: Rated G, suitable for viewing for the entire family
Running Time: 86 min.
Cast (voices): Lisa Michaelson, Cheryl Chase, Greg Snegoff, Kenneth Hartman, Alexandra Kenworthy
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki (based on his book)
Review published February 19, 2003
For the record, I watched the dubbed American version of My Neighbor Totoro (or Tonari No Totoro if you need the Japanese title) because it was the only option available to me at the time. I try to watch films in their original language if I can, with the rare exceptions where the subtitling is translated terribly or too difficult to read. Luckily, the dubbing is excellent here, as it has been for all of Miyazaki's releases thus far, with quality voice work by all those involved.
Most people outside of Japan probably only know of Hayao Miyazaki's work with the excellent Princess Mononoke and more recently, his highly acclaimed Sprited Away. Of course, he is a veteran animator, as well as writer-director, and My Neighbor Totoro represents some of his earlier work. However, just because it's older doesn't mean it isn't as good as his more high-profile efforts, as this is every bit as thematically impressive and competently crafted as any of his films.
Most of the action in Totoro follows two young girls, Mei and Satsuke. They've recently moved out into the country with their loving father to be a little closer to their mother, who has been hospitalized in a nearby city. It doesn't take long for the kids to see strange creatures which suggest their house may be haunted, and soon they discover it's not only the house, but the nearby forest is full of magical creatures that inspire fright and delight. One of these happen to be Totoro, as Mei has dubbed him, a large, smiling "king of the forest" that they pray to for protection -- a strange friend for two young girls to have, but a good one.
One shouldn't knock this children's fable from being too surreal since, like the works of Dr. Seuss, the life-lessons learned come through the fascination of seeing weird creatures and strange events, all of which should keep the attention of most due to the outlandish qualities. Even more impressive than the colorful, magical creatures is the realism when it comes to how humans behave and interact, especially in the three-dimensional ways in which the young girls are portrayed. It's quite easy to forget that they are cartoon drawings after a bit, and also hard to believe that two drawings from the mind of a middle aged man could be more realistic than the vast majority of young characters played by real-life children in live-action fare.
Miyazaki sticks to the themes he has become well known for, namely, that we should respect nature for its ability to protect, and also to learn to live together with nature instead of seeking to destroy all that is beautiful. In addition, the theme to respect for your elders and the traditions of the past should never be forgotten, while also extolling the virtue off the community to bond together and look after one another.
My Neighbor Tototo is an animated feature which will most likely be crammed into the children's section in most outlets where you might rent or buy movies, somewhere stuffed between Barney and the Teletubbies. While this is certainly qualified to be a children's favorite, this will also delight older audiences through its imagination and an irresistible cuteness that isn't too sweet to stomach. If you thoroughly enjoyed Spirited Away, I can't think of a companion piece to recommend higher.
©2003 Vince Leo