My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Movie Review

As the saying goes, Children do and say the strangest things. I couldn’t tell you if I ever saw a big furry creature that resembles a real-life teddy bear when I was 4 or 7 years old. Then again, I have never lived in the country (or anywhere with a lot of trees, for that matter) and I’ve never wanted to see a big furry creature, either. Perhaps that was my problem, and the reason why I never saw Totoro, the furry forest creature that lives next door to the characters of My Neighbor Totoro.

As the song at the end of the movie informs us, Totoro and his fellow furry forest creatures only show themselves to children, but to adults they’re invisible. Even if they were to fly right past you, all you would notice is the gust of the wind, but you’d never see them. Even fellow kids won’t see the furry creatures if they don’t believe. The stars of Totoro are Satsuki, a 7-year old, and her little sister Mei, a precocious 4-year old. Mei worships her sister and the two moves to the countryside with their father to be closer to their mother, who is sick in the hospital with an unexplained illness.

This leaves Mei and Satsuki and their father to make their new home, believed to be “haunted” by the locals, livable. The house turns out not to be haunted at all, but infested with forest creatures that moves into abandoned homes. When owners move back in, the creatures retreat into the forest, or a giant tree near the homestead. That tree, incidentally, is the home of Totoro, a lazy, big, and furry cat-like teddy bear who is constantly asleep.

My Neighbor Totoro is an animated film in Japanese with English subtitles. The film is short at around 85 minutes or so, but those 85 minutes are some of the most spectacular animation I have seen in my life. Made in 1988, Totoro showed that you don’t need fancy computer equipment and an army of computer programmers to make a good animated film.

What makes Totoro so special isn’t its animation, although that in itself is worth watching the film for, but the special quality of the writing and direction. It’s almost impossible to imagine a more perfect movie. The voice acting is superb, and the animation of the two characters, Mei and her big sister Satsuki, are dead-on and perfect in every way. Even the father character is masterfully done. Everything, right down to the first chance encounter between Mei and Totoro, is magical. The film itself is 85 minutes of pure magic. The movie made me smile with its title sequence and I never stopped smiling until it was over.

There’s little doubt that Disney has cornered the market on animation. With its dancing candles and ridiculous musical numbers, the term “Disney-fication” has become something to snicker at. Compared to the genius of Totoro, Disney mind as well be a group of 4th graders in their basements making silly cartoons.

A movie like Totoro really isn’t animation, but a movie that isn’t possible in any other form, and thus requires the anything-goes world of animation to bring the characters and the magical wonders inherent in the story to life. In any other format, the movie would suffer greatly. After all, what real 4-year old girl could scale a tall tree without falling down and hurting herself the way the animated Mei does?

Americans call animated movies “cartoons,” but the Japanese call it “anime” (pronounced anna-may). There are various forms of anime, from the schoolgirl comedies to the sci-fi to the adults-only erotica movies. Totoro defies all three categories, blending schoolgirl charm with an adult view of the world. Mei’s eyes gets big from to time, but there’s no absurd physical traits like giant eyes or mouths that threatens to swallow the character’s whole head. The movie balances fantasy and reality with a perfect note. With that balance perfectly struck, this movie is nothing short of a wondrous achievement, for both children and adults.

In all those ways, My Neighbor Totoro is a perfect movie.

Hayao Miyazaki (director) / Hayao Miyazaki (screenplay)
CAST: Hitoshi Takagi …. Totoro
Noriko Hidaka …. Satsuki Kusakabe
Chika Sakamoto …. Mei Kusakabe

Buy My Neighbor Totoro on DVD