Set in the Japanese countryside sometime after WWII, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO offers a tale of two sisters and their relationship with a family of forest sprites known as totoros, magical, cuddly creatures seen only by children. An ideal animated film for young children, it has also found favor among adults who appreciate its unusually gentle, painterly style of animation, a trademark of the film's director, Japan's most renowned animator, Hayao Miyazaki.
Two sisters, 10-year-old Satsuki and five-year-old Mei, have just moved to a country house with their father, an anthropology professor, while their mother recuperates from an undisclosed illness in a nearby hospital. One day, while playing alone near the house, Mei spots a couple of small, furry creatures who can vanish at will and chases them into the underbrush where she follows a path to a large camphor tree deep in the woods. Inside the tree, she encounters the sleeping Totoro, a massive being resembling a cross between a rabbit and a koala. She awakens the playful creature by bouncing on his round stomach, beginning a relationship that will soon involve Satsuki. The girls' encounters with Totoro and his family include an evening wait in the rain at a roadside bus stop, where Totoro boards his own peculiar mode of transportation, a 12-legged "cat-bus," and, later, a planting session in the middle of the night, when the seeds Totoro has given the girls sprout into a giant tree and the happy creature celebrates by giving the girls a ride with him on a spinning top that carries them over the trees. A crisis develops when a telegram arrives from the mother's doctor and the girls, left alone, fear the worst. An anxious Mei sets off on her own for the hospital and promptly gets lost, launching the worried Satsuki and most of the local farmers on a desperate search through the countryside. Only when Satsuki calls on Totoro, who enlists the aid of the high-speed cat-bus, is Mei found and reunited with her sister.
Some of the animation set pieces are particularly outstanding. The nature details in the forest scenes and the wait in the rain at the bus stop are so carefully wrought that they recall such highlights of the Disney glory days as THE OLD MILL and BAMBI. The painted backgrounds are lush, realistic, and full of luxuriant foliage. The character animation, while stiff by Disney standards, is appropriate to the characters and expressive enough to bring them to life for the audience. Adding greatly to the warm mood of the film is the lyrical score by Jo Hisaishi.
Produced in 1988, the Japanese-language version of TOTORO developed a large cult following among animation fans in the US, despite its lack of subtitles, long before the release in 1993 of this expertly dubbed English version. Writer-director Miyazaki's other animated features, all marked by imaginative premises and high adventure, have consistently registered strongly with stateside buffs. These include CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO (1980), NAUSICAA IN THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984), LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986), KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989) and SCARLET PIG (aka PORCO ROSS0, 1992).
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