Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review: "My Neighbor Totoro" is Pure Magic

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 35 (of 2013) by Leroy Douresseaux

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Tonari no Totoro – original title
Running time: 88 minutes (1 hour, 28 minutes)
PRODUCERS: Toru Hara with Ned Lott (2005 Disney version)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Mark Henley (Disney version)
EDITOR: Takeshi Seyama
COMPOSER: Joe Hisaishi


Starring: (voices) Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, Lea Salonga, Frank Welker, Pat Carroll, and Paul Butcher; (original Japanese): Noriko Hidaka, Chika Sakamoto, Shigesato Itoi, Sumi Shimamoto, Hitoshi Takagi, Tanie Kitabayashi, Toshiyuki Amagasa, and Naoki Tatsuta

The subject of this movie review is My Neighbor Totoro, a 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film from writer-director, Hayao Miyazaki, and produced by Studio Ghibli. Originally titled, Tonari no Totoro, the film focuses on two sisters who move to the country where they encounter the forest spirits who live nearby.

My Neighbor Totoro was released in English in the United States beginning in 1990s. After acquiring the rights, Walt Disney Pictures released their English dub of the film in 2005, featuring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, and Lea Salonga. The subject of this review is the Disney version of My Neighbor Totoro, which has just been released on Blu-ray for the first time (as of this writing).

My Neighbor Totoro opens in Japan, 1958. Professor Tatsuo Kusakabe (Tim Daly) and his daughters, the elder Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and four-year-old Mei (Elle Fanning), move into an old house in Matsugo. There, Kusakabe will be closer to his wife and his daughters’ mother, Yasuko (Lea Salonga), who is recovering from a long-term illness.

Not long after moving into their new home, the girls soon encounter small, dark, dust-like spirits called soot gremlins (or soot sprites), moving from light to dark places in the house. That’s just the sisters’ first encounter with the fantastic. One day, Mei spies a small magical creature and follows it to a large camphor tree near the old house, where she enters a world of magic and adventure. That leads to both Satsuki and Mei discovering a wondrous creature they call “Totoro” (Frank Welker).

In 1989, the release of Walt Disney’s animated musical film, Little Mermaid, was (and still is) seen as a renaissance for Disney animated feature films. A year before that, Japanese animation (or “anime”) did not need a renaissance thanks to films like Studio Ghibli’s 1988 release, My Neighbor Totoro.

As with other Miyazaki films, My Neighbor Totoro looks like it was lovingly crafted by the hands of human artists and animators. They drew and painted until they created a beautiful animated film that really has the illusion of life. Like many films from Studio Ghibli, My Neighbor Totoro loves people and nature equally. Thus, the film is about the Kusakabe sisters exploring nature and the magic found within it, rather than being about a conflict with nature and the girls being threatened by the magic they find there.

The Matsuga countryside, as depicted by this film’s artists, is a pastoral ideal, with verdant forests and fields. There is so much fertility and the water is so crystal clear and cool-seeming that you might believe that magic could not help but exist here. In fact, a sense of wonder about nature and their resourceful imaginations are what help the Kusakabe girls discover magic in a strong breeze or in the music they hear at night.

My Neighbor Totoro is blessed with a few truly great characters. Satsuki and Mei are remarkably convincing as little girls. It is said that there is magic in a child’s laughter and heartbreak in a child’s cries. Dakota Fanning as Satsuki and her sister, Elle Fanning, as Mei personify that by giving life-like performances. I believed in the Kusakabe girls because everything about them – their actions, conversations, desires, etc. – ring with authenticity – thanks to the Fanning sisters.

Of course, the film’s signature character is Totoro, one of the finest characters ever to appear in an animated film. He is a force of nature, doing more by communicating through growls, roars, and facial expressions than many actors do even with dialogue composed by the best writers. He’s pure enchantment; you can’t take your eyes off Totoro. After seeing Totoro when he first appears in the film, I felt that I never saw enough of him afterwards. Then, there is Catbus – that crazy mind-bending Catbus. The first time I saw him in this movie, I felt something that I only experience while watching the best of the best movies, something I can’t put into words.

I have previously seen four films by Hayao Miyazaki, including the superb Spirited Away. I think My Neighbor Totoro is the one that has wowed me the most… so far.

10 of 10

Monday, May 20, 2013

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