My Neighbor Totoro Review

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro is pure magic. Though director Hayao Miyazaki’s trilogy of previous films were all terrific, it was with this 1988 feature that Hayao Miyazaki became the legend in animation that he is. My Neighbor Totoro is a film that’s as wonderful as it is unique, and an absolute joy for all ages.

While Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky were all epic adventures, Hayao Miyazaki decided to make something more subtle for his fourth feature.

My Neighbor TotoroMy Neighbor Totoro – originally conceived as a children’s book by Miyazaki over a decade before it became a reality on the silver screen – is not a film featuring action, suspense, or daring adventurers. Instead it’s a film all about the little moments in life, every day occurrences made magical. My Neighbor Totoro is all about childhood wonderment and imagination, and yet is also deeply grounded in real emotion. It’s a film that’s as beautiful as it is adorable.

My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of 10-year old Satsuki Kusakabe and her little sister Mei, two girls who are moving to the Japanese countryside with their father. Their move is meant to bring them closer to their sickly mother, who is in a hospital near the new home. Unbeknownst to the family, their new home is haunted.

My Neighbor TotoroNot haunted in any traditional sense of the word. There are no scary apparitions at work here. The house, it turns out, is invaded by Soot Sprites. These small, fuzzy creatures – who would later appear in Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away – simply produce dust in the old house. But an even bigger supernatural presence happens to live next door. Inside of a gigantic camphor tree that stands behind the girls’ new home live the Totoros.

These Totoros are gentle forest spirits who can easily be seen by children, but are more elusive to adults. The camphor tree is home to three such Totoros: a tiny, white one who can disappear. A slightly larger blue one who carries a magic bag full of acorns. And finally, the gigantic gray Totoro – the “King of the Forest” – who can make trees grow, produce gusts of wind by flying on a magic top, and rides around in a Catbus.

My Neighbor TotoroLittle Mei is the first to meet the magical Totoros, and her sister Satsuki is soon to follow. Together, the two sisters have several amazing encounters with the Totoros as they get accustomed to their new home and deal with their mother’s illness.

There really isn’t a more detailed plot than that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My Neighbor Totoro is not a film about a plot (it’s only real conflict doesn’t arrive until its third act). Instead, its story is all about its wonderfully realized characters and their daily occurrences: some mundane, some magical. Some happy, some sad.

My Neighbor TotoroSatsuki and Mei are quite likely the most realistically depicted characters in animation. Their personalities, mannerisms and interactions with each other and everyone around them capture an amazing sense of realism. They may be animated, but they’re depicted in such a way that makes them as believable and lifelike as any characters in cinema. Because of their believability, we are able to get all the more emotionally invested in the film. It’s easy to smile in the moments when the girls are playing, and it’s downright heartbreaking to see them argue or worry about their mother.

My Neighbor TotoroTheir father is similarly memorable. Though he doesn’t partake in the girls’ magical adventures (he’s a busy university professor, and adults aren’t aware of when Totoro is around) he is loving towards his daughters, and completely respectful of the tales they tell him. While any other movie might have adults openly doubt their children, or simply humor them, Professor Kusakabe firmly accepts and believes his daughters when they tell him about their adventures with Totoro or the Catbus. He may or may not fully understand what his girls are telling him about magical forest creatures, but he never once doubts them. The same goes for the girls’ mother, who is delighted to hear that the family’s new home also occupies spirits. While many animated features often feature a conflicting dynamic between parents and children, My Neighbor Totoro’s depiction of family comes across as refreshingly loving.

My Neighbor TotoroThe girls also encounter Kanta, a neighborhood boy who develops a crush on Satsuki, and his kindly grandmother, who watches over the girls while their dad is at work. These characters also have a strong sense of believability about them, and help add to the film’s realness.

Then we have the Totoros themselves, arguably Miyazaki’s greatest creations. They’re as mystifying as they are adorable. They are capable of utterly wondrous feats, yet are as simple and cuddly as a household pet. They are certainly cute enough to justify their standing as Studio Ghibli’s mascots, yet there’s also a reverent, spiritual quality about them, making for a completely unique combination.

In terms of animation, My Neighbor Totoro remains a captivatingly beautiful film. Though it may not have the same sleekness of Miyazaki’s later features, the backgrounds are as stunning as they’ve ever been, the character designs as unique as any of the great director’s features (and certainly the most adorable), and the film (once again) captures a striking realism with each of the character’s mannerisms.

As beautiful as the visuals are, the soundtrack seemingly pulls off the impossible and equals them. As is the case with every Miyazaki feature starting with Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro was composed by Joe Hisaishi, and it is possibly his finest work. Appropriately, the soundtrack to Totoro is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The film as a whole brilliantly captures the happy and the melancholic, and the soundtrack brings out these emotions all the more.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the few Miyazaki films to have been dubbed into English on two separate occasions. The first dub (released on home video in 1993 and no longer in print) was distributed by Fox, and is easily the best of the early dubs of Japanese animation. The second dub, distributed by the Miyazaki-mainstays at Disney, is more readily available, and features a more star-heavy cast (with sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning providing the voices of Satsuki and Mei). Perhaps because I grew up watching the original dub, that tends to be my go-to English version, though in many ways Disney’s effort is just as great. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

My Neighbor TotoroWhen it was first released in Japan, My Neighbor Totoro was a revelation, winning numerous awards – many of which were normally reserved for live-action features – and becoming one of the most cherished family films of all time. Though it never saw a wide theatrical release in the western world, its impact has been no different, becoming a beloved classic as much in the United States as it is in its native Japan. It’s acclaim couldn’t be more deserved.

My Neighbor TotoroMy Neighbor Totoro is a film entirely void of wickedness. There are no villains, and not even the tiniest shred of cynicism. But despite its consistent happiness, My Neighbor Totoro is anything but naive, as it never shies away from the existence of sadness and tragedy. It captures the feelings of childhood better than any film I’ve ever seen, and is relatable to both children and adults.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the greatest animated films of all time. It finds magic in the mundane, adventure in the average, and depth in the simplistic. And it does so with a sincerity and grace that seems unapproachable to other films. My Neighbor Totoro is the most gentle, sensitive and sweet film I’ve ever seen.

 

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Animated Films That Won Live-Action Movie Awards

Since the early 2000s,  more and more film award shows and committees have been introducing awards for animated films. The Oscars now have the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, an award which was later replicated by the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Japan Academy Prize (Japanese Academy Awards). The up side to this is that it finally gives these award shows the opportunity to acknowledge animated features, which have been notoriously ignored in the past. The downside is that these awards often come as something of a token, as animated films are rarely even nominated for any other awards on these shows (lest they be for music or songs), despite whatever critical acclaim and admiration these animated films have received.

But every once in a while, the people behind some of these awards manage to overcome their biases, and there are some animated films that have actually won Best Picture awards and the like from some award presentations. I’ve given up hoping that the Oscars will some day crown an animated film with their top prize – considering only three animated films have ever been nominated for it (already a bit iffy), and that none of them were taken seriously as contenders – but that doesn’t mean others haven’t acknowledged the merits and timeless appeal of animated movies.

The following is a short list of some of the animated films that proved they could not only go toe-to-toe with live-action films at award shows, but even overcome their competition. Keep in mind that this is merely a short list of examples. I’m mainly focusing on the animated films that won the big awards at more prominent award shows, so there are probably a few others I’m missing. I’m also not including various critic awards, since it’s been long-established that critics enjoy animated films just fine, but award committees are tougher to win over.

So without further rambling, here are some of the exceptional animated films that overcame the odds, and won Best Picture awards that are usually reserved for live-action films.

 

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro

Won: Mainichi Film Award for Best Film

Hayao Miyazaki’s tale about two girls who meet a magical forest spirit is one of the most beloved Japanese films of all time. It is also the earliest animated film I can think of that nabbed a Best Picture award over live-action competition, winning the Mainichi Film Award for Best Film. What makes this win all the more notable is that the Mainichi Film Awards already had a long-established animation award (they now have two, the older of which now going to smaller features and the newer going to big budget animations). Totoro won their animation award, and then went on to win the big prize as well. Well deserved.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast

Won: Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy

While Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, it became the first animated film to win the big prize at the Golden Globes. Beauty and the Beast remains one of Disney’s most charming features, and with a wonderful soundtrack to boot. How could it not win the musical category?

The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King

Won: Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy

I may not be the biggest fan of The Lion King, but no doubt the film has a very strong appeal to many viewers, as is evidenced by its repeating of Beauty and the Beast’s win for the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture. It was the highest-grossing animated film ever at the time, and its Golden Globe win only capped off its success.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke

Won: Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, Mainichi Film Award for Best Film

Hayao Miyazaki once again created magic when he released Princess Mononoke in 1997, which briefly became the highest-grossing film in Japan’s history (it still ranks in the top 10). It also became the first animated film to be nominated for and win Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards. It then became the second animated film to win the Mainichi Film Award’s top honor (also claiming its animation award). Princess Mononoke was a landmark animated film at the box office and in acclaim.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

Toy Story 2

Won: Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy

The third animated film to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture is also, sadly, the last. Shrek, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles would all get nominations, but after the Golden Globes established their Best Animated Feature category, their rules state that any films nominated in the animation category are ineligible for either of the Best Picture awards (the least they could have done was named the newer award “Best Picture – Animated“). But at least this trend went out on a high note, as Toy Story 2 is one of Pixar’s best.

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away

Won: Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, Mainichi Film Award for Best Film, Berlin Film Festival’s ‘Golden Bear Award’ for Best Film

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away, remains the highest-grossing film in Japanese history to this day. It also became the second animated film to be nominated for and win Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards (sadly, since the inception of the Japan Academy Prize’s Animation Award a few years later, no other animated film has been nominated for Best Picture).

Spirited Away followed suit with Totoro and Mononoke by winning the Mainichi Film Award for Best Film (where it also won the Animation Award, Best Director for Miyazaki, and Best Music for Joe Hisaishi). Spirited Away also became the first (and only) animated film to win the big prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. This string of awards would culminate with the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, giving that award some depth and credibility in its early days.

When it comes to animated films winning live-action movie awards, Spirited Away is the big dog in this league of animated all-stars.

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

Wallace and Gromit

Won: BAFTA for Best British Film

Given the huge popularity of the Wallace and Gromit characters, it still comes as a surprise to some that the duo have only starred in a small handful of short films and one feature film. But that one feature film is the only animated movie to win the BAFTA award for Best British Film. Not bad for an absentminded inventor and his mute dog.

Frozen (2013)

Frozen

Won: Japanese Academy Award for Best Foreign Film

Frozen has taken over the world (and rightfully so, it’s so lovable), becoming the most successful animated film ever made, and winning numerous awards for Animated Features and for its music. But Frozen’s impact has undoubtedly been biggest in Japan, where it ranks as one of the country’s highest-grossing movies (it was the first film since Spirited Away that actually contested Miyazaki’s box office champ). It broke all home video records in Japan (overtaking Spirited Away in this instance), and it has etched its way into Japanese popular culture. It shouldn’t be too surprising then that it also became the first animated film to win the Japanese Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (previously, Toy Story 3 was the only other animated nominee in the award’s history).

The Oscars apparently couldn’t get over themselves and give Frozen a Best Picture mention, but the Japanese Academy Awards made up for it by acknowledging the film’s unprecedented appeal.