Posted on 5/20/06 10:40 AM
What more can be said about My Neighbor Totoro? Get this movie. Immediately. Without a doubt one of the best animated features ever made, Japan or otherwise, Totoro is an outstanding original creation from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
Before I delve into what makes My Neighbor Totoro a fascinating movie, allow me to provide a little history lesson about the film: shortly after the release of Castle in the SkyMiyazaki was determined to produce another movie. However, Tokuma Shoten, Ghibli's backing executives, didn't believe that Totoro guaranteed box office success, so it was eventually decided that Miyazaki's movie would be paired as a double-billing with another Ghibli production, Isao Takahata's heartwrenching Grave of the Fireflies. It was a decision that proved to be nightmarish; the production period for both films was tumultuous, and the box office release was disappointing. In the end, however, the trouble was worth it, for both Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro became major classics on Studio Ghibli's resume. In particular, demand for merchandise based on Totoro was so strong that the studio distributed cuddly plush toys, resulting with enormous profits. (It was Kiki's Delivery Service that would catapult Miyazaki and Ghibli into box office success status.)
A common generalization about Japanese animated features is that they are nothing but a showcase of graphic violence and sexuality, yet My Neighbor Totoro could very well change your mind. This is a simple, heartwarming original tale involving two sisters -- Satsuki and spunky little Mei -- moving with their somewhat scatterbrained but loving father (Mr. Kusakabe) to a new home in the Japanese countryside. As it turns out, though, the new house is far from deserted. Every nook and cranny is dominated by tiny, fuzzy black balls of soot (called "dustbunnies" or "Soot Gremlins", depending on which version you watch--but more on that later), frightened away only by laughter. A tall, luscious camphor tree towers above the other trees in the back yard. And, lastly, the Totoros themselves, absolutely adorable little creatures who look like a cross between a raccoon, rabbit, owl, and guinea pig (a personal bias here, since I owned such a pet who reminds me so much of the Totoros here), live in this very forest, carrying acorns, making huge trees grow at night, and playing ocarinas on the branches of the trees.
There is even one really big Totoro (which we'll call just Totoro, for the sake of continuity) who sleeps under the tree, so cuddlesome and gentle that you'll swear that he's the equivalent of your pet. Of course, he doesn't just allow Mei to snuggle on his chest. He lets out thunderous roars, shake the ground by jumping with full force, grins as wide as a Cheshire cat (albeit with warmth and generosity), helps others when they're in trouble, and gives acorns wrapped in bamboo leaves in return for gifts.
Arguably the most memorable creation in the movie aside from the Totoros is a giant, ginger-colored cat who takes on the form of a bus, with glowing yellow eyes for the headlights and twelve--count 'em, twelve--legs to roam around the countryside faster than the speed of light (I swear, I'm not making this up). Like Totoro himself, he shares a wide, infectious grin showcasing generosity and warmth. The Cat Bus only appears two times in the movie, yet every minute we see him in is a delight.
What gives My Neighbor Totoro its heart is in the characterizations of the girls who propel the story as well as their family and neighbors. Satsuki and Mei are portrayed as real, believeable children with their strengths and weaknesses. Satsuki is the older of the two, and at times comes across as bossy, yet she is a sweet, caring young girl and obviously cares for her little sister. Mei, the youngest, is also the most interesting--bursting with uncontrollable energy and curiosity just like any girl her age would; she constantly demands attention, occasionally competes with her sister, throws fits of frustration, and all around, absolutely adorable. Their father, who, as mentioned, is a bit of an oddball yet very patient and supportive of his girls, cares for the duo.
Their next-door neighbor is Granny (Nanny), an equally loving and helpful old woman who comes to help the girls when their father isn't around. Her grandson, Kanta, meanwhile, is that typical, impish young boy from everyone's childhood; he does not know how to deal with girls his age, and initially the best way he can communicate with Satsuki is to tease her, "your house is haunted!" Naturally, this begins a series of humorous scenes where we see the two of them exchange rude faces at each other. Later on, however, when Satsuki and Mei are strolling home from school in the rain, Kanta shows by to lend them his umbrella, and even proves to be a true friend, especially during the finale. Characters as interesting and well defined as this are what makes a movie (or Anime series, TV or OVA) gripping from start to finish, and like most Ghibli movies, My Neighbor Totoro's cast is the kind that one can identify with or relate to.
The story isn't all hearts and flowers, however. An emotionally charged subplot involving the sisters' ailing mother (shades of Miyazaki's personal life here) gives Totoro a dramatic edge. This is particularly evident in the third act, when the girls receive a distressing telegram about their mother. Both Satsuki and Mei are extremely traumatized by this as any real child would be if such a situation occurred in their lifetime. Mei gets upset and throws a temper tantrum; Satsuki loses patience and lashes out at her sister. Later Mei sets off for her mother's hopsital, igniting an intense yet understated climax where Satsuki and everyone else around the neighborhood tries to search for the missing youngster. Of course, everything turns out happily, but not before these emotionally charged sequences pry tears from the viewer's eyes.
This mixture of real-life situations, emotions, and magical discoveries found in your nearest back yard make My Neighbor Totoro feel authentic (even with its fantasy elements). One cannot help but find this quality in any of Miyazaki's films, this one included.
Not only is My Neighbor Totoro beautiful as a story, it's gorgeous as a movie. The backgrounds are lavishly detailed and many of the sequences literally overflow with imagination, especially the thrilling setpiece where Totoro, the children, and his companions use their energy to create a giant camphor tree and then fly through the night air on a spinning top, bellowing all the while. While the animation doesn't have the flashy, high-tech computer graphics we commonly see in cartoons today, its simplicity and charm compliment the (mostly) lighthearted tone perfectly. (I don't know how My Neighbor Totoro would have looked if done with computer graphics, but I doubt it wouldn't feel the same as admiring the immense effort put into every cel and background painting as we see in the finished film.)
Once again, Joe Hisaishi supplies a very memorable score which recaptures the childlike innocence and wonder we see in many of the sequences; the theme for Totoro himself is infectiously catchy as is the bouncy march song over the opening credits. And while it is sparsely used (and sometimes not as grand sounding as his later scores), Hisaishi's music, whenever we hear it, is a fitting accompaniment to the movie.
There is a bit of history when it comes to the American release of My Neighbor Totoro. The film was originally dubbed into English by Carl Macek and his California-based company Streamline Pictures in the late 1980's. English versions of Japanese Anime have been derided by many, many hardcore Anime fans, but even Macek's harshest detractors had to confess that his dubbing of Totoro was probably his finest ever. The voice acting is of uniformly high quality--from the sisters (portrayed by Lisa Michelson and Cheryl Chase, respectively) to their father (Greg Snegoff, who served as the ADR director and scriptwriter)--and the translation, although a bit loose in places, suited the story well. While it is obvious to tell that Michelson sounds like an adult pretending to be a child, its hard to discredit the energy and youthfulness she brought to Satsuki. The same goes for Chase, who does the difficult job of convincingly sounding like a real little girl. This English version was originally released to theaters by Troma Pictures in 1993; the video was issued by FOX Video, and reportedly sold over half a million copies.
Recently, however, FOX's rights for My Neighbor Totoro expired, and as Disney acquired all the Ghibli movies--Totoro included, it was inevitable that they would produce their own version (with their expected pledge of using big-name stars to provide the voices). Naturally, reactions to the new dub has so far been mixed. Although most of the critical reviews were mostly postive, others have clamored for the old dub, claiming that Disney has somehow tainted the charm of the original. Personally, I am inordinately fond of Macek's dub, so I was a little worried about how the new crew would handle this new version. If you're still uncertain over whether you should heed the naysayers' advice to skip the new dub and watch the movie exclusively with the old one (or the Japanese version), DON'T. Even though the voices and dialogue in the Disney dub are different, the spirit of Miyazaki's childhood classic is as charming and adorable as ever, and, in short, imperishable.
The Disney script--provided by Cindy and Donald Hewitt--is a fresh retranslation from the Japanese language track, and actually adds some interesting details that the Mecak script didn't have. The name "Totoro" is actually Mei's mispronunciation of the Japanese word of "troll" (to-ro-ro); having this back in the script helps clarify the origin of the name. I also found the scenes where Mei imitates Satsuki very fun... especially during the first half. There's also less dialogue in this new version (the old one had a few added-in lines); Disney's habit of sneaking in extra dialogue has been noticeably toned down (not that I dislike their sometimes extraneous one-liners for Kiki's Delivery Service or Castle in the Sky; on the contrary--I still find them entertaining, however I don't think throwaway wisecracks would have worked well for this film). For people used to the old script, it should be best to be warned: there are a few minor changes in the dialogue (for example, in one scene Satsuki says she's going to write her letter to mom; in the Streamline version she states she's going to meet her friend from school), however none of them hurt the movie in any way. The wording is different, but the meaning remains the same.
Real-life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning take on the daunting task of performing Satsuki and Mei, and while I was a little worrisome, both of them ended up captivating me from the start. Elle's Mei is especially great: she nails every scene she's in to a T and beyond. In fact, there are even scenes where Elle upstages Dakota! Not to degrade Dakota though. She doesn't surpass Lisa Michelson's interpretation, nor does she attempt to. All Dakota does is play the character as she sees her (or perhaps as directors Rick Dempsey and Ned Lott do), and does so admirably, especially during any moment where we see Satsuki running around with Mei. I did notice that she handles her more dramatic scenes (and normal ones with Mei) with a more low-key, understated style than Michelson did, but this approach works just as well. Personally, I think it was great for Disney to cast two actual sisters in the roles of Satsuki and Mei; the chemistry between them feels all the more real for it. Not that Michelson and Chase didn't do admirable jobs, but the energy and enthusiasm the Fanning sisters put into their roles is one of the dub's biggest plusses.
The other voices are equally well cast. Tim Daly is an excellent match for their father; his soft, gentle voice lends admirably to the character's patient, easygoing nature. Lea Salonga, making her first voice acting debut, does a delightful job as the mother; it's easy to visualize her voice belonging to a sickly yet cheerful mother. Paul Butcher (one of the child actors from Disney's dub of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) is also great as the impish youngster Kanta. My favorite performances? Pat Carroll, who supplies gentle warmth and whimsy as Granny; she doesn't even sound anything at all like her most famous role in animation, Ursula the Sea-Witch from Disney's The Little Mermaid. Also, Frank Welker, a longtime voiceover actor, has established a reputation for himself as a master of vocal noises and grunts, and he provides terrific--and I mean terrific--foley for both Totoro and the Cat Bus. There are a few places where the lip synchronization is a little off, but it's not all that bothersome.
One thing that bears note is that the opening and ending songs were originally translated into English and sung in the Streamline version. In the Disney version, the lyrics remain unchanged, but a new singer (Sonya Isaacs) was brought in to deliver them. Probably my only quibble with the new dub is the revamped opening song, which, although catchy as ever, sounds a little bit more gung-ho than the gentle rendition provided by whoever it was who sang the songs; the ending theme is handled a little better--I especially liked hearing Isaacs harmonizing certain verses at places.
There are likely to be endless comparisons and discussions on how the Disney dub stacks up to the old English track by Macek (and likewise, the Japanese language track) to the very bitter end, but I think it's great to have more than one adaptation of a beloved story--especially when done by people who obviously love and care about Miyazaki's work. In other words, both the FOX and Disney dubs are excellent translations--although getting the most out of the English tracks depends solely on what you bring with you to them.
Either way, however, My Neighbor Totoro is far from just another kid's story. With a little bit of luck, grown-ups (and those who consider themselves too "sophisticated" for cartoons) will enjoy it too.