If the adjectives “magical,” “whimsical,” “warm-hearted” and “delightful” put you off wanting to watch a movie, then perhaps MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO isn’t a particularly safe bet for you. Recently I made the mistake of recommending the delightful (see, there I go again) Disney feature LILO & STITCH to a more cynical male acquaintance, who after watching it with me remarked: “You’ve grown soft now that you’re a father . . .” Guilty as charged, I guessed. Children make us uncool and turn us into wusses. True.
First some background info for the uninitiated: MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO is a 1988 Japanese animated movie (called anime). It was directed by one Hayao Miyazaki who went on to also direct the hugely successful PRINCESS MONONOKE (at least in Japan where it became that country’s biggest box office hit, at least until TITANIC), KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE and last year’s SPIRITED AWAY. SPIRITED AWAY got some great reviews from critics last year, but fared poorly at the American box office.
If you think anime consists of robots beating the bejesus out of one another or the violent likes of AKIRA and GHOST IN THE SHELL – think again. MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO is squarely aimed at small children, whom I am sure will enjoy it a lot. Set somewhere in 1950s Japan, it is the magical (stop me now!) tale of two small girls who with their father move into a new country home. There they encounter all kinds of wondrous (aargh!) creatures, among them an enormous fluffy “totoro” who is a sort of master of the woods.
Meandering about somewhat aimlessly, a plot of sorts only kicks in about fifteen minutes before the end of the movie when the girls receive a disquieting telegram regarding their mother who is in hospital for an unspecified ailment. Good-natured and benevolent are two adjectives that also spring to mind. Minor spoiler: Perhaps it is an indictment of movies nowadays, but one keeps on expecting something bad to happen. But nothing ever does. That doesn’t mean that the movie is without any interest: I wasn’t bored at any point during its less than 90 minutes’ running time. End spoiler.
Needless to say director Miyazaki (try saying it fast three or four times in a row) is somewhat of a cult figure with anime fans and net heads, and saying anything negative about him or his movies will bring about the untamed wrath of countess movie geeks. (Check out the Tottentomatoes.com web site where a recent reviewer felt obliged to change his negative rating of SPIRITED AWAY after suffering a storm of abuse. He claimed that he changed his review after being informed that the movie is a parable for prostitution in post-War Japan – a ludicrous assertion by all accounts – but I suspect he tired of the constant abuse. His was the only negative review on the site . . . )
Despite my contrarian nature (I just love getting Tolkien groupies all riled up – it’s great fun) I have to agree with them. I enjoyed PRINCESS MONONOKE a lot and am still looking for a comprehensible copy of SPRITED AWAY (my local anime dealer can only supply me with a Japanese language track DVD with Chinese subtitles – not a lot of help that). After reading a particular glowing of MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO by U.S. critic Roger Ebert, I decided that it would be my next DVD purchase for my baby girl. Okay, so she’s only four months old at the time of writing here, but I’m planning ahead here damn it!
After viewing it I must say that I think that I made the right purchase here. I enjoyed MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO a lot more than, for instance, CINDERELLA II: DREAMS COME TRUE, which I also bought for my baby daughter. All right, CINDERELLA II was unbearably bad and my wife I switched it off after ten minutes or so and it isn’t really a fair comparison. (Friends’ kids seem to enjoy it though. However I suspect that kids under eight will enjoy practically any animated feature – a fact of which Disney is acutely aware when one considers the endless stream of direct-to-video sequels such as LION KING II, PETER PAN II and the recent JUNGLE BOOK II.)
MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO couldn’t however be more different to Disney. Its entire approach is different: more low-key, fewer annoying songs and irritating animal sidekicks. Not as noisy and grating to be honest. That doesn’t mean that kids won’t enjoy it though. In fact I think in particular very small girls will love it. Adults won’t have any of the post-modern knowing humour that made them enjoy SHREK, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be entertained as well. In fact my wife cried a tear or two during the movie – and I can’t remember the last animated effort that elicited that kind of response from anyone . . .
Final verdict: a welcome antidote to the US cultural imperialism of countless inferior Disney sell-thru videos, your kids will love you for buying MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO. And you will pat yourself on the back for it.
(Final note: by all accounts the Region 1 DVD is a poorly dubbed and inferior pan ‘n’ scan affair. Try finding the Region 2 DVD instead. Sure the menus are in Japanese, but playing around with the Audio and Subtitles button on your DVD remote will provide you with either English subtitles or a mono English soundtrack. This DVD has a very sharp and crisp looking image, and is presented in its full widescreen glory.)