"Dust bunnies make a lot more sense than ghosts."—Dad
With Mother in the hospital recovering from a long illness, Satsuki and Mei drive with their father to a new home in the country. Beneath the canopy of an enormous camphor tree, they find wonders hidden in the lush greenery. Dust bunnies prowl the attic. Spirits race through the leaves. And through the brush and down a hole lives a family of furry creatures.
Little Mei thinks they are trolls and calls them all "Totoro." But these totoros, small and large, are intelligent, friendly, and curious, a bit like children themselves. Welcome to the world of Hayao Miyazaki, where magic and reality cross paths in the forest. My Neighbor Totoro is one of the most beautiful animated films you will ever see—except for the fact that Fox has completely botched this DVD release.
If an American animation studio made Tonari No Totoro:
• The King Totoro would speak with the wisecracking voice of Ray
Romano or Eddie Murphy. John Goodman would play the cat-bus. Celine Dion would
contribute a pop song about the wonders of trees.
From the opening moments of Hayao Miyazaki's gentle My Neighbor Totoro, you know that you are watching something very different. Totoro debuted in a double-feature with Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, and in some ways the films mirror one another. As Satsuki and Mei travel to their new home, Satsuki and Mei dip from a container of candy, then duck from a man in uniform they think is a policeman. Their first friend, Kanta, wears only his undershirt and an officer's cap. It is as if Miyazaki's world is the flipside of Takahata's film, a world in which nature offers friendship and healing rather than chilling indifference.
Satsuki and Mei's lives are not without conflict, however. Their mother lingers with an unidentified disease (likely tuberculosis, since Miyazaki's own mother suffered it), always remote. This is perhaps Miyazaki's own childhood, growing up in the 1950s as Japan struggled to reshape its identity, to grow into adulthood after the trauma of war. Indeed, My Neighbor Totoro, much like the recent Spirited Away, might be read as a metaphor for Japan itself, looking to reconnect with nature and spirit after war and urban life has made it ill. But the characters in this film are not allegories: the children behave as children do, with that screwed-face mock courage that turns to panic when confronted with a surprise. In this, Miyazaki treats the girls at the center of this story realistically. There is no condescension, especially by the parents, who seem supportive of their daughters' joy in the magic only children can see. Dad encourages Satsuki and Mei to show their respect for the great camphor tree and the spirits it holds.
But Mom and Dad never need to see the totoros: this movie is entirely from the girls' point of view. This is a film about how children cope with trauma, and ultimately, whether King Totoro and the magic of the forest is real or a dream does not matter. To the girls, everything is altogether real. Miyazaki drives the story forward with small details, keeping the girls active and at the center, rather than forcing them through a series of stock "adventures." They chase dust bunnies from the house. They get caught in the rain. Mei briefly runs away, but is quickly found safe.
Take the rain sequence as an example of Miyazaki's sublime use of detail. Walking home, Satsuki and Mei are caught in a downpour. Kanta offers his umbrella—with a frown of course (pretending it is an imposition)—secretly delighted he has made a connection with that cute new girl Satsuki. The umbrella itself has tiny holes and is pulled slightly off one rib.
The scene does not seem, on the surface at least, to amount to much, filled with stillness and silence to an extent few American directors would ever allow. But the payoff comes in a brilliantly surreal and funny encounter with the King Totoro himself at the bus stop in what is easily one of the most inspired moments in any animated film—complete with a maniacally-grinning Cheshire Cat-bus.
Intelligently developed characters, delicate and lovely visual compositions, and a moving story recognizable to any child—these are compelling reasons to watch My Neighbor Totoro, as I know I will do with my daughter again and again. However—and here I reach perhaps the most painful point in any review I have yet written—I am deeply disappointed with Fox's DVD release of Miyazaki's most tender film. While the English language dubbing (done by Streamline Studios then distributed by—of all studios—Troma) is excellent, Fox presents this DVD in full frame. In fact, the packaging proudly boasts that it is "pan and scan." Much of the beauty and wonder in this film is found in its visual design, and to release this as if it were merely a shiny replay of the VHS release (for which at least I got a free stuffed Totoro toy back in 1994) is utterly unconscionable. Worse still, the print is starting to fade, dulling its rich use of color. A Dolby 2.0 audio mix (so much for Joe Hisiashi's bright score) and no extras (trailers for completely unrelated films do not count) only compound the problem.
Originally billed with Grave of the Fireflies because its distributor thought it unmarketable, Tonari No Totoro made such an impact on audiences that Miyazaki chose King Totoro as the logo for his Studio Ghibli, the famed production company that would later score triumphs with a string of masterpieces like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Totoro may seem like a small film compared to some of Miyazaki's other works, but its intimate scale is exactly what makes it stand apart from the usual animated fare. If every Miyazaki film is a work of genius (and I direct readers to my Deep Focus column on Miyazaki's work, written prior to Spirited Away, for more on the themes in his work), then Totoro is perhaps his most personal film, a reflection of his own childhood.
I am torn however. As much as I think this film should be required viewing by every child (especially girls, who are front and center of few animated films that treat them realistically and not as fairy princesses), I am left with a bitter taste in my mouth regarding Fox's utter indifference to this title. My guess is that they rushed a cheap edition onto the shelves to a) compete with the forthcoming Disney Miyazaki discs and b) their license is probably due to expire soon (Disney already holds licensing rights to the film in every other country).
My recommendation: buy Totoro for your kids if you can find it cheap (or better, used, so Fox at least does not get rewarded directly with your money for this travesty), and grit your teeth at the poor DVD treatment. Then prepare to shell out again in a couple of years for a respectable edition.
Fox is guilty of a poor DVD release of one of the most sublime animated films ever made. Reward Miyazaki by patronizing his work, and be glad that Fox will soon no longer have control over this film.
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