This review contains Spoilers
My Neighbour Totorro is a gentle but imaginative Japanese Animation from Studio Ghibli, first released in 1988 it achieved critical acclaim, and for many proved a rewarding introduction to the studios work, not without its flaws, but certainly with numerous strengths it is a worthwhile watch that demonstrates the magic of old hand drawn animation and foreign cinema alike.
Set in present day Rural Japan it follows two girls Satsuki and her younger sister Mei. Moving to a new house with their Father (their mother is currently recovering from an illness in Hospital) they are assisted unpacking by their new neighbour ‘Granny’, a kind, slightly mad old lady who enthrals them with tales of local forest spirits and their mysterious ways. One night Mei encounters one and follows it into the forest; falling into a colossal tree trunk she encounters Totorro a giant, furry forest spirit (who makes a guest appearance in Pixar’s Toy Story 3) with a fondness for Umbrellas and sleeping. The sisters Join Totorro in a series of magical, inventive and at times moving adventures, which make the most of the films short running time.
In the years since its formation Studio Ghilbi has gradually built a reputation as Japans leading animation studio, its founder Hayao Miyazaki, serves as My Neighbour Totorro’s director and screenwriter, bringing immense skill and imagination to the role.
This is evident in the beautiful, and very imaginative art direction, a tree swelling to 20 times its normal height, and a giant 8 legged talking cat bus stay in the mind long after the film has ended, but even the quiet moments impress, a wait at the bus stop in the rain and a walk in the woods, not only does it show talent from the crew, its surprisingly believable for a 2D animated fantasy. A bright musical score is employed, its rather limited presence complement the visuals perfectly
Perhaps realising that foreign markets could find it hard to relate to a Japanese setting, Miyazaki creates human protagonists and situations that are easy to relate to, siblings arguing, a wise old lady dispensing information and a young boy uneased by those feelings towards that girl. The script is well written with an understanding of the 3 act structure but not particularly inventive (In terms of dialogue). It makes the film a very accessible watch for those who want to, but unfortunately also makes the film easy to anticipate, evidently generic clichés travel internationally.
Whilst it is designed to entertain it is also educational, providing an insight into Japanese landscapes and folklore and for children message about the importance of family ties. Fans of Disney’s hand drawn classics will certainly recognise the influence, though they shouldn’t come in with same expectations, the story is universal, but the film retains a primarily Japanese flavour.
In contrast to many Hollywood animated films, there is no angle or in your face message, the story is neutral passing no judgement on the characters, who remain largely two-dimensional, (which is I suspect intentional, in keeping with the target audience and the bright tone of the film)., Though it isn’t necessarily a problem in a child’s film the lack of character depth, may make an already acquired taste harder to relate too.
The story is slow and slight, a somewhat leisurely pace and a lack of a villain may surprise, even annoy some viewers: -the one lurking threat, the mother’s illness is not much of an issue and quickly resolved by the end of the film. It is to the films detriment while not overlong (running time-86 Minutes) it doesn’t feel quite as tight as it could be, the visuals will stay in viewer’s memories but the plot may not.
In short My Neighbour Totorro is an acquired taste, its leisurely pace and Offbeat visuals may prove a turn off for some viewers, as may the fact it’s foreign. But for those looking for something a bit different this may well prove the answer, it certainly has it flaws but Overall its bright tone and imaginative visuals make My Neighbour Totorro a triumph, and a for me a great introduction to Studio Ghilbi.
This review was based on the original Japanese release. Voiced by an enthusiastic Japanese cast, with convincing English language subtitles, it is no different to the English Language versions, save in audio (most of the Japanese dialogue was translated directly into English), several of which have been released, primarily for the US Market.