My Neighbour Totoro Review
It makes sense, in a way, that My Neighbour Totoro should capture childhood summers so well. Hayao Miyazaki’s follow-up to the grandiose epics of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the film serves almost as a vacation for the director, a chance to take things easy and relax a little. Furthermore the 1950s setting would appear to take him closer to his own formative years, not to mention further away from the otherworldly realms of these earlier creations. In this case two young girls are the focus as they move to an old house in the country with their father. The mother happens to be in hospital with TB, but this is no simple excuse for mawkish sentimentality. Rather Miyazaki closes in on his two young protagonists and approaches everything from their point of view.
As such Totoro is a film imbued with a sense of innocence and wonder. Every little detail is completely new to the sisters and so everything must be explored. In cinematic terms this provides a terrific means of evoking the right mood: Miyazaki communicates primarily through music and montage during the early stages, whilst the almost ruthless energy which characterised his cinematic debut, The Castle of Cagliostro, is co-opted in order to capture the girls’ enthusiasm. Moreover, the animation style is refined, yet detailed; certainly, it can’t compare to the CG-augmented likes of Howl’s Moving Castle and other newer Ghibli titles, but there’s a definite step up from Laputa and a great deal of attention has been paid to the smaller things, such as the landscape and the weather. It becomes almost immediately apparent that Miyazaki shares these youngsters’ awe for their surroundings, and consequently so do we.
This delicacy also extends to the characters and it’s often astonishing as to what Totoro is able to pull off. The two girls could so easily have become obnoxious brats – both are extremely loud – had it not been for the level of observation. As said, there’s no sentimentality on Miyazaki’s part (although it would be fair to describe Totoro as nostalgic), but also no cynicism. He simply wishes to capture the reality of a situation – attitudes, interactions and the like – and this he does. Indeed, it’s particularly noticeable when it comes to the other characters: through the girls’ eyes an old woman becomes a strange, unknowable semi-grotesque, whilst the father is presented as unerringly noble. Of course, he’s incredibly one-dimensional as a result, but from this particular perspective how could he be taken any other way?
Perhaps more importantly their point of view allows for a perfect introduction to the more fantastical elements. Having established the mood in the early stages Miyazaki then brings into play three invisible creatures, “a tiny one, a little one and a huge one”, as well as a delightfully odd cat bus. (It’ll make sense once you’ve seen it.) Yet whilst such an element no doubt adds a great deal to Totoro’s charm, it’s worth noting that it is not of the greatest importance. Throughout the film it is the family who are kept at the centre, with Totoro (as the “huge one” is named) and his friends are there solely as a means of focussing the emotions, the sense of wonder and awe. Indeed, it’s debatable as to whether they’re even real at all – they only seem to appear when one of the girls is asleep. In this respect, therefore, you could also argue that Totoro becomes some kind of Japanese equivalent to the classic British animation The Snowman; it certainly shares that same level of enchantment and childhood evocation.
Another of Optimum’s Studio Ghibli, My Neighbour Totoro must also rank as one of the best looking. There’s none of the ghosting which has blighted some of these previous titles, whilst the colours are pleasing vivid and the print spotless throughout. The only questionable element is the aspect ratio as here we find the film presented 2:1 (anamorphically enhanced, of course). Given that previous editions from around the world have favoured the 1.85:1 ratio it would be safe to assume that what we are getting here is incorrect. Furthermore, Optimum’s edition of The Little Norse Prince, one of Miyazaki’s earlier credits, similarly came in this framing, although in that case the intended OAR was 2.35:1. UPDATE: Having checked on a PC I can reveal that the image has been windowboxed to protect from overscan and as such is in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
As for the soundtrack, here we find the original Japanese DD2.0 mix, plus an optional English dub (again in DD2.0) prepared by Disney in 2005 and featuring the vocal talents of one Dakota Fanning and her little sister(!) As such it really should be of the original being the one to go for. That said, both are technically sound and demonstrate to discernible problems, whilst it’s also worth noting that the subtitles (which comes as both literal subtitles for the Japanese mix and hard of hearing ‘dubtitles’ for the English one) are of the yellow variety.
In terms of extras, Totoro matches most of the previous Optimum Ghibli titles. Here we find the complete storyboards for the film available via a multi-angle function, textless opening and closing sequences, plus the usual collection of trailers, both for this particular effort and various other Ghiblis.