Friday, November 1, 2013

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: My Neighbor Tortoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki.
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki.

There is a simplicity to the films of Hayao Miyazaki that is quietly beautiful. He is probably the greatest animator in film history. He has made 10 features – and somehow I managed to see all of them except for My Neighbor Totoro (one of his most famous ones) years ago. There is not a clunker in the bunch – although his first film The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) is markedly different than his other films, and doesn’t have the same look or feel to them.

My Neighbor Totoro is perhaps the simplest of all Miyazaki films – and I do not mean that as an insult. This is a leisurely paced film that I think it ideal for very young viewers. The film takes place in an innocent world. This is not a film that amps up the action, introduces bad guys or fight scenes or even quick movement. It is a purely innocent film, even at the end, which does involve a search, the results are never really in doubt.

The film is about two sisters – Satsuki and Mei – who along with their father move into a new house, out in the Japanese country. They have moved to be closer to the hospital where their mother is staying with some undefined long term illness. While the children miss their mother, they are excited about moving into a new home. They haven’t been there long before they encounter the first of many, perhaps imaginary, creatures – which may just be dust bunnies, but to the girls, they appear to have eyes, and legs and can run away when you try and catch them. Eventually there will be more creatures – when Satsuki is at school, Mei wanders off into the forest, and first encounters a small totoro – a little triangle creature, who eyes her suspiciously, and tries to run away. Eventually, she will crash through some sort of unseen barrier and come face to face with a giant totoro – a hulking, furry mass, while he sleeps. Mei curls up on his belly and is quickly fast asleep herself. There really isn’t much plot in the movie to speak of. It is about these two girls and their friends, who whether they are imaginary or not, doesn’t really matter.

The film is, as all Miyazaki films are, a wonder to behold visually. Miyzaki’s visuals are magical in a way that can only be done in animation. His Totoro’s are big, round, hulking creatures, but they are never scary. In perhaps the films best scene, the two girls go to meet their father’s bus – and as the rain picks up, and the night grows darker, they become scared – and the Totoro appears by their side to help them get through the minutes. A magical, 18 legged cat bus pulls up and wisks him away right before their father’s bus arrives – he is no longer needed, and away he goes.

I’m not sure what else needs to be said about the film. It is a simple, beautiful film about children, for children. It doesn’t offer quite the pleasure of Miyazaki’s masterpieces – Princess Mononoke (1997) or Spirited Away (2001), and is a probably a notch or two below other Miyazaki films like Nausicca (1984) or Castle in the Sky (1986) as well. Those films offer more plot, although none of the false theatrics of American animated films, and are perhaps even more beautiful to behold than this film. But I also know that My Neighbor Totoro will be among the first films I show my daughter. She was with me when I watch it this time – but at only 18 months old didn’t understand it obviously. Yet there were moments when I saw her staring at the screen, unable to look away (normally, she completely ignores the TV if it’s on). I want her first movie experiences to be pleasant and wondrous – and that pretty much perfectly describes My Neighbor Totoro.

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