Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky teams up with his more articulate three-year-old daughter to write this review of a Miyazaki classic.
"They're going on an adventure, daddy!'"—My daughter Rachel
Another Miyazaki masterpiece. Even if you bought the cut-rate Fox DVD of this a few years ago, you will definitely want to double-dip this upgraded edition.
Facts of the Case
Meet Mei and Satsuki Kusakabe. Their mommy is very sick and staying in the hospital. Daddy just bought a house in the country, within a few hours' walk of the hospital. He is hoping that Mommy will come home soon, but she has been sick a very long time.
Mei and Satsuki's new house is pretty, but it might be haunted. It is full of soot spirits and maybe ghosts. There is a big camphor tree behind the house. Mei once fell into a hole in the tree. She found a big, furry totoro. What is a totoro? Something you see only when you are a wide-eyed little girl. So let's ask one…
Several years ago, I reviewed the Fox release of Tonari no Totoro, the sweetest and most personal of Hayao Miyazaki's films. This low-key paean to childhood and nature was ill-served by a full-frame transfer and thin audio (although the original English dub was not bad, given the general quality of anime dubbing at the time). I'll give you a minute to click over to that review, which spends much of its time explaining why this is Miyazaki's sweetest movie.
Back? Good. As to the personal aspects of the film, My Neighbor Totoro's setting and story evokes Miyazaki's own childhood, growing up in post-war Japan and coping with his mother's long battle with tuberculosis. The film deftly encapsulates the major themes of his work: the healing power of nature (and its embodiment as a conscious entity), the strength of women, love of flying, the innate wisdom of children. It would be easy for any filmmaker to sentimentalize all this stuff, and Totoro does tend to run very close to the edge of sentiment—more so than any of Miyazaki's other films. In that sense, the film does benefit, at least for adults, from its "double-feature" status with the bitterly depressing Grave of the Fireflies. Although I wouldn't recommend making small children sit through the Takahata film.
Speaking of small children. I promised myself, back in the days of untranslated VHS bootlegs of Totoro, that if I ever had a daughter, I would sit her down in front of Totoro at the youngest age that she was capable of understanding it. I was understandably loath to do this with Fox's pan-and-scan edition of the film. But now, with Disney's superior two-disc DVD, my daughter, now three-and-a-half, can enjoy My Neighbor Totoro in full flower.
And indeed she has. Rachel has seen the film three or four times now. And so, given that I have already commented on this film from a grown-up perspective, I decided to let her tell you why children will enjoy this beautiful film, in spite of the fact that it has no wise-cracking animal sidekicks or Radio Disney pop hits or fart jokes or things blowing up.
Rachel was so fascinated with the film, in spite of having seen it several times already, that it was hard to get any detailed answers from her. Typically, Rachel will expound on what she likes, recounting her favorite parts and even inventing sequels. But I had to stop the disc several times to actually get her to pay attention to my questions. This is very unusual for Rachel; even during her favorite movie (Cinderella, naturally) or favorite television show (Little Einsteins), you can easily distract her. In any case, she did share her thoughts during and after the film.
Right away, Rachel wants you to notice the opening credits. The song "has singing and it has those [bugs and a cat] and it has dancing." Rachel enjoys going on nature walks, just like Mei. But she has never been on a catbus like in the movie (just in case you were wondering). Nonetheless, if she ever rode on one, she would probably go to the zoo, or to Disney World, or to a Chinese restaurant. As for exactly what a totoro is, Rachel explains that "totoros are this big!" They also "stay up all night" and "they dance." "They jump up so many trees, and they pump up the grass and they grow them and make the trees and a beautiful garden. And now I'm done."
Rachel wants to assure you that the movie is not scary and is good for little girls to watch. Why? "It has totoros in it. It has Mei in it." Fair enough. But is it only for little girls? Can her six-month old brother watch it? Yes, according to Rachel, "because it's not scary." Mommies and daddies will like it too. Just like the children in the movie, "they're gonna have a fun time!"
When asked about her favorite part of the movie, she announced with certainty, "Totoros! Because they are just fuzzy, and there's a white one, and the totoros flied!" When pressed further, she admitted later that "I liked just all of the parts." Especially "when Mei was all by herself…and Mei watched [the soot sprites]." And in spite of the fact that Satsuki's short hair made Rachel mistake her for a boy a couple of times, Rachel liked "when the totoro picked Satsuki up and they started to fly." Actually, she listed a lot of "favorite parts" in subsequent conversations and named many of her friends who would like this movie.
If Rachel ever meets a totoro, she will ask it to be her best friend and go on adventures. But our cats can't come, because it is outside, and the cats don't like to go outside.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Parents will likely appreciate the fact that Disney's upgraded DVD release of the film is consistent with the rest of the company's Studio Ghibli two-disc sets. You get the usual "behind the microphone" interviews with the voice cast (led by sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning). The second disc consists of storyboards. You also get a Japanese trailer and clean credit sequences (full of charming Miyazaki drawings).
While the English audio track is only 2.0 (as was the old Streamline dub on the Fox disc), it feels less thinned out than its predecessor. The translation is much more accurate, although I did prefer the phrase "dust bunnies" in the old dub to the clunkier "soot gremlins." And of course, you can always enjoy the original Japanese audio too. The image transfer is much improved: not only do you finally get the full 1.85:1 framing, but the colors are sharper and richer than on the lackluster Fox disc. In short, this is a solid improvement on the prior release and well worth purchasing again. The only plus side to the Fox disc was that it came with a little stuffed totoro with a bag of acorns. Rachel held it while she watched the Disney DVD.
According to Rachel, you should buy a copy of the movie. She offered to give you our copy of it, since she is very good at sharing, but I told her you should probably buy your own.
The previous judgment against this film is overturned by the court. We thank Disney for finally giving this disc its due.
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