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Hayao Miyazaki's cherished 1988 family flick gets a special edition DVD release, courtesy of Disney.
Film fans need no introduction to the fabulous world of Hayao Miyazaki and his production outfit Studio Ghibli. For decades the director has been pumping out excellent productions that have deservedly taken themselves to the forefront of Japanese and animated cinema. My Neighbor Totoro was originally made in 1988 by the acclaimed filmmaker and has become one of his most respected and admired works. The film is somewhat softer and less ambitious than other Miyazaki offerings, but its cute characters, effective story, and beautiful design mean it remains worthy of celebration. Following the release of Ghibli's most recent film Ponyo, Disney has decided to delve into the back catalogue and pull out a few of Miyazaki's best works for the special edition treatment. So how does My Neighbor Totoro fare?
The plot follows two young sisters as they move to a new home following the hospitalization of their mother. Their loving father treasures both Satsuki (Dakota Fanning, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) and Mei (Elle Fanning, Phoebe in Wonderland), but his work means he has limited time to spend with them. However, both youngsters quickly ingratiate themselves with the locals, but it's their budding relationship with forest spirit Totoro that really keeps them contented. Totoro introduces them to some memorable characters and ultimately helps the girls cope with the absence of their mother.
My Neighbor Totoro really doesn't need much of a critical evaluation at this juncture in time. The film is regarded as a charming and lovingly crafted project, a reputation it thoroughly deserves. Its incredibly simplistic narrative and brief 86 minute runtime mean it's not as complex or brave as some of Miyazaki's other works, but it remains an engaging piece of Asian cinema. As with most Ghibli projects, the English dub is very well presented and doesn't once take anything away from the experience; it feels as organic and natural as the original soundtrack. Visually, the film is also a delight. The character design is affable and attractive whilst the environments are true works of art. Films like this are argument enough that the current CGI/3-D craze sweeping animation is unnecessary. My Neighbor Totoro is warmer and more picturesque than any number of DreamWorks productions. Hand drawn animation has a raw beauty that computers will never be able to replicate and a soul technology can't hope to match. This gorgeously composed feature is a delight to behold from first frame to last.
The story is basic but the themes are well handled. My Neighbor Totoro may be filled with cuddly beasts and surreal imagery (the Catbus never fails to amaze), but at its heart is the story of a family trying to cope with illness. Miyazaki here is drawing on past experience (his own mother took sick when he was young), and he delivers a moving emotional core as a result. The characters are well written and compelling. Satsuki is a fun loving and curious girl, but Miyazaki does a fantastic job of subtly adding in a layer of uncertainty and fear into her DNA. It's these carefully applied and well-adjusted moments of depth that make Miyazaki characters so rich and intriguing. Miyazaki is a natural storyteller and a skilled constructer of screen personalities and character dynamics. He uses these abilities well here, getting the balance between frothy fairytale and heartfelt paranoia perfectly. For reasons such as this, his films are equally appealing to children and adults, making My Neighbor Totoro an enjoyable treat for the entire family. There is a logical complaint that the film lacks conflict, and to a degree this is true. The narrative is breezy, and leaving the last 20 minutes aside, it takes a notably laid back approach to telling its story and avoids any forms of tension. However, within the confines of the fuzzy tale, I found the lack of such troubles perfectly acceptable. A little added friction might have livened up the second act, but it remains a great picture.
My Neighbor Totoro is a genuinely lovely experience. I don't think it packs quite the same degree of dazzling punch that Spirited Away does, but it works beautifully in its own reserved and pleasant way. Disney has reissued the film as a two-disc set with great audio and video capability. The transfer has been well handled and the movie really looks superlative even on standard-def. The disc has several featurettes included under the heading The World of Ghibli. The featurettes vary wildly in size (2 minutes to 28 minutes), but each does its respected job with panache and fascinating insight. Most of this content is new and cannot be found on the film's previous DVD release, making this set a necessary upgrade for fans. This new material is well-researched and highly enjoyable, embracing both the imagination and culture behind the movie. A selection of storyboards is also included (these are on the previous DVD), which along with the extensive featurettes and interview content round out a tempting double dip.
My Neighbor Totoro is a lovable feature that deserves a place in any film fan's library. Both owners of the previous edition and newcomers are advised to consider picking up this set, although the inevitable Blu-Ray on the horizon should also be considered before forking over your hard-earned cash. This is a well-made film that warrants a not guilty verdict.
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