Celebrating the DVD release of director Hayao Miyazaki’ most recent hit Ponyo, Disney has once again repackaged (very handsomely) some of the animation titan’s earlier endeavors. One of his most beloved films is this one, My Neighbor Totoro, which does an excellent job of showcasing what is both admirable and annoying about his body of work. Here we follow a family, comprised of two young girls (though one looks and sounds remarkably male) and their father, as they move out into the sticks. Their new home is a rinky-dink little thing that is falling apart at the seams and lives in the shadow of one enormous tree. The animation, hand drawn by Miyazaki, is haunting, dreamlike and totally his own, and is really the number-one reason to immerse yourself in this world. But by doing so you are also left to deal with some deliberate pacing and the gnawing sense that this guy really only has one story to tell.

Why the family is on the move is never explicitly stated, though we can probably deduce that it has something to do with their finances, and that that has something to do with a matriarch who lurks in the background and is so ill that she cannot leave the hospital. While out exploring the neighborhood, Mei, the younger of the two daughters, comes across a Totoro (which is sort of Japanese for troll). Soon she has discovered an entire family of them living in the woods behind her house. On the poster for the film the creatures are featured front and center so it is surprising to discover that in the actual storyline they play a very small role. More than anything we are just pulled out on a lazy current as these girls get to know their new environment. Many questions are left unanswered such as what ails their mother and whether or not these Totoro’s are real or just a way for the girls to deal with their grief surrounding their mother.

The father, while not the biggest character here, is certainly the most interesting. On the surface he appears to be blissfully unconcerned with life and casually laughs off anything that is bothering his daughters. What they express to him is a fear that they have monsters living in their new house he. Without missing a beat, goes “That’s great, I’ve always wanted to live in a haunted house.” We all have different ways of managing pain and the dad’s response is hard to read since we have no idea how sick his wife actually is. Western audiences, addicted to their melodramatic plot twists, will expect nothing less than a wrenching death bed scene so to see his odd behavior in light of his surroundings will be especially unsettling to us.

Disney has the right idea here, releasing the film with a dubbed audio track and marketing it as the pure children’s movie that it is. Miyazaki almost exclusively makes the type of wholesome (read: safe) family entertainment that American parents are always clamoring for. But perhaps they have fallen out of style for a reason. Kids want their movies to be a lot more jazzed up than this and parents want something to latch onto other than the straight forward sameness of storytelling that he provides. Purists will probably deride the celebrity dubbing but they have no case since the original Japanese version is also included on the disc, and besides, dubbing is hardly the crime against cinema that, say, artificial colorization is. Also, those same film snobs can appreciate Miyazaki’s attention to detail and the way he builds a world for his characters to inhabit as opposed to just servicing his narrative. Whole scenes exist that do nothing to advance the plot and I think we can all applaud that. On the whole though My Neighbor Totoro falls a hair short as it feels too much like way too many other things out there, most notably everything else Miyazaki has ever made.

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, Lea Salonga
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 86 minutes
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures Ghibli
Rated: G

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