My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

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  -Watched English-Dubbed Version-

  My Neighbor Totoro was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw. The thing is, I really didn’t want to watch it at first. I grew up thinking anime was ‘stupid’ and there was some whining and complaining on my part when my Grandad and his girlfriend Franny rented it from a really cool movie place across town and suggested we watch it. To this day, although I’m still not a huge Japanese animation enthusiast, I’m grateful to my grandfather and Franny for introducing me to a Miyazaki movie and taking me out of my comfort zone. His films are, in a word, magical, and led me to checking out some other worthy choices in the genre like the mind-blowing Paprika and the relentlessly sad Grave of the Fireflies.

The plot of My Neighbor Totoro is simple, but there’s a lot of crossover appeal between young children (who will adore it) and older people (who are likely to be enraptured in the film’s gorgeous hand-drawn animation and joyful, innocent storytelling.) My Neighbor Totoro explores that time in childhood where the possibilities seem endless and seemingly insignificant experiences seemed like tiny wonders; a fleeting period in youth when yours truly taped feathers to her arms and tried to fly, and made a mad-dash attempt to use a plastic bag as a parachute and launch herself off the hill outside my house.

The story follows two little girls Satsuki (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her little sister Mei (Elle Fanning,) as happy a two children as you’re ever likely to meet. But their life is not without troubles. The girls’ mother (Lea Salonga) has been in the hospital indefinitely with a vague but insistent illness, and their rather absent-minded father (Tim Daly) has moved them into a ramshackle house in the country and often outright forgets to look after them. Nevertheless, the sisters approach their new home with barely contained excitement and a genuine sense of wonder, and life gets a whole lot more exciting by the minute when they meet a friendly, cuddly forest spirit named Totoro.

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Dad seems utterly caviler about what appears to be wild flights of fancy on the girls’ part (most American parents would be sending their kids to the psychiatrist when their ‘delusions’ about giant forest spirits perseverate,) making me wonder if he believes in the existence of the creatures or if he’s just playing along for his daughters’ sake. Regardless, he’s a pretty cool dad, although his slips into inattention can be slightly worrying. The first thing you’ll notice about My Neighbor Totoro if you’re unfamiliar with Japanese anime is the unusual animation and the characters’ huge mouths- literally. The kid sister could stuff watermelons into that thing. I can be jarring at first, but My Neighbor Totoro‘s sweet-natured plot soon gets the better of you.

There’s not a whole lot of conflict on display here- a mild catastrophe takes place and Totoro and the relentlessly imaginative ‘cat-bus’ (half cat, half bus, with unbelievably awesome results) are there to save the day. The majority of the film, however, focuses on the Satsuki and Mei exploring their natural environment and discovering a wealth of benign mystical creatures like Totoro, the Cat-Bus, and the fearful ‘Soot Sprites,’ who flee from a room whenever you turn the lights on. There’s not a huge sense of danger or of trying to convince the parents of the creatures’ existence, the parents ‘get it,’ or are at least willing to play along.

Hayao Miyazaki’s lovely film is above all, a perfect embodiment of childhood, in an idyllic world where the child protagonists are able to fully explore their environment and traverse their surroundings without fear of unsavory adults or everyday terrors. Only at the very end do you get a hint of darkness, and it makes you consider that the dad probably should have gotten up from his papers and paid more attention to his kids. But All’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare says, and a series of magical, and occasionally frustrating and tense events lead to a heartwarming ending.

Like the best animated films, My Neighbor Totoro isn’t just for kids; it’s for everyone who remembers being a kid as well. It’s not fantasy on such an epic scale as some of Miyazaki’s later efforts, including Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but it’s pure and innocent and true and charms the pants off of anyone who loves low-key, kind-natured movies that make you believe the best in humanity. Rent it for a son or daughter, a niece or nephew, or a film enthusiast grandkid (as my Grandad did)- just make sure you see it. It’s a wonderful and worthwhile experience.

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