Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) - Childhood Innocence

My Neighbor Totoro: If you Are Over Age 5, This Could Give You Serious Nightmares

Disney DVD cover My Neighbor Totoro 1988
I don't know, that Totoro character looks kind of shady...
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli (basically Disney in Asia), "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988) follows the adventures of two girls who encounter friendly animal spirits in the Japanese countryside. It is a lovingly hand-crafted animated family fable that uses muted pastels to create a world of the human comedy.

My Neighbor Totoro 1988

The main character of "My Neighbor Totoro," Totoro himself, has become famous among Japanese children, and the film illustrates the deep hold that traditional village life still has on people there. Totoro's fame has become such that he transcends this film, much the way Mickey Mouse transcends any particular Disney film. He makes cameo appearances in unrelated works, including some Western ones in which you've probably seen his form, but didn't recognize him.

The house in My Neighbor Totoro 1988
The enchanted house.
Two young girls, Satsuki (Dakota Fanning; US actors are from the foreign versions) and Mei (Elle Fanning), live with their father, Professor Tatsuo Kusukabe (Tim Daly) in an old country house. They are there to be near their mother, who is very ill. While exploring the house, they find out that it is full of "soot spirits." The spirits, however, soon leave to find another empty house, having alerted the children that their new house is enchanted.

Satsuki and Mei laughing My Neighbor Totoro 1988
Mei and Satsuki laughing.
Looking under the house one day, Mei discovers two dwarfs who look like rabbits. They lead her to a large tree, where she meets a larger version of the dwarfs who roars. She thinks the roars sound like "Totoro," which is a corruption of the Japanese word for "troll," so that is what she calls him. She falls asleep and later is unable to find the tree again. She is disconsolate, but her dad comforts her by telling her that she saw the "keeper of the forest" who only appears when he wants to be seen.

Mei and Satsuki riding a bike with dad in My Neighbor Totoro 1988
Going for a bike ride with dad.
Some days later, Mei falls asleep with Satsuki, and as they rest, Totoro comes to visit. Satsuki offers him an umbrella because it is raining, and in return, he gives her some nuts and seeds. He then departs in a giant cat that serves as a bus.

Giant tree My Neighbor Totoro 1988
Climbing the giant tree.
The girls plant the seeds, and at midnight some days later they awaken to see Totoro and the two dwarfs dancing around the planted seeds. The girls go out to join, and the seeds sprout and grow into a giant tree, on which they play. Totoro then takes the girls flying, then home to bed. In the morning, the giant tree is gone.

The catbus in My Neighbor Totoro 1988
The cat bus.
Mei heads on foot to the hospital to see her sick mother without telling anyone, which causes Satsuki and others to search for her, without success. Satsuki, desperate, goes outside to plead with Totoro for help. He immediately appears and takes Satsuki on a ride in the cat-bus.

My Neighbor Totoro 1988

The cat-bus stops in front of Mei, who boards and rides the bus to the hospital. It turns out that their mother is fine, and the girls return home on the cat-bus, to be followed home by their mother who, it turns out, just had a simple cold and will be all better.

Totoro fishing with the children My Neighbor Totoro 1988
Totoro and the children.
"My Neighbor Totoro" is elegantly simple. It is a tale of children confronting adult issues in a childish way that ends up working out well in the end. The girls act like girls - if you need to see your mother in the hospital that is miles away and you have no idea of the way, you just pick yourself up and start walking anyway.

Totoro at the bus stop My Neighbor Totoro 1988
Waiting with Totoro.
Rather than make the wood spirits the stars or wonder about their origins or nature, which would be an adult theme. Instead, they are simply occasional charmed visitors who become accessories to the children's' own delight at being in such a warm and friendly place. Family relationships are everything to a child, and this film absolutely nails the family dynamic in a way a child would understand.

Mei and  My Neighbor Totoro 1988
Mei and Satsuki.
You can only compare the character of Totoro to other children's favorites, such as Winnie the Pooh or Mickey Mouse. It is easy to dismiss such films as children's' material, but such characters are very appealing to them and serve a purpose in making them feel secure and loved. Totoro has become such a phenomenon that he has made subtle cameo appearances in films such as Toy Story 3 and Studio Ghibli's well-regarded Spirited Away. Believe me, children who have seen this film will recognize him when they see him.

The Giant Tree in My Neighbor Totoro 1988
The giant tree.
"Totoro" is a family treat, best suited to small children who are open to the idea of Tooth Fairies or Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. We are talking about pure childhood innocence here. Isn't that a good thing, to be indulged until it goes away all too soon?

My Neighbor Totoro 1988

Treated as such, "Totoro" is a wonderful excursion into childish, friendly companions who are gentle and loving, with just enough magical power to make everything turn out the way a child believes they should. You can't judge this on adult terms, only a child would fully appreciate the awesomeness of a cat serving as a bus, or a seed that can sprout into a giant tree during the night, then be gone at daybreak.

Mei looking under the house My Neighbor Totoro 1988
Look out behind you!
The Blu-ray edition is the way to go. There are complete storyboards, and the transfer is clean and crisp, with the same vivid sound effects you would hear in the theater. There are mini featurettes on the music, and scenes from the English dub process with Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning. If you are thinking of picking up something for your toddler, you might want to see if a copy of "My Neighbor Totoro" is available. You might be surprised at their delight and maybe take a peek at it yourself.

My Neighbor Totoro 1988


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