Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hidden Gems: My Neighbor Totoro

I've decided to start a new series highlighting movies that perhaps the casual filmgoer may have never heard of. This current edition I'm choosing to take a look at a film from Mr. Hayao Miyazaki, considered by many to be the master of Japanese animation. He has made many classic films in his career, but I've decided to highlight one of his finer films that tends to get lost in the shuffle of his more popular works. A truly heartfelt adventure that kinda makes one think of E.T., called My Neighbor Totoro.

Hayao Miyazaki's films always seem to amaze me. Whether it be the dense and extremely poignant Princess Mononoke, or the beautiful and deeply affecting Spirited Away, he always manages to capture the viewer's imagination, but no other film in his catalog manages to ensnare the viewer quite like My Neighbor Totoro. In a way it is very different than many of his other films.

My Neighbor Totoro is a simple film, but told in a very affecting way. It's the story of two young girls who move to the country with their father so that they can be near their ailing mother in the hospital. While at their new home the girls discover an ancient forest spirit called Totoro that can only be seen by children, and Totoro helps them to find hope within all their inner turmoil.

It is safe to say that My Neighbor Totoro is quite possibly Miyazaki's most human film he has ever made. While there are many other Miyazaki films that are perhaps more breathtaking in scope and may have far more intriguing plots, My Neighbor Totoro puts all of its focus on the characters rather than the fantasy. As a matter of fact the fantasy within the film is very sparse, and appears at all the right moments to strike the perfect chord with your emotions. Though this should not lead one to believe the film doesn't have some awe-inspiring fantasy. It wouldn't be a Miyazaki film if it didn't. There are many sequences, such as the catbus scenes or the flight with Totoro that are simply magical and help solidify this film amongst the pantheon of other Studio Ghibli productions.

Miyazaki makes the smart choice of telling the story through the eyes of the children rather than giving it a cynical adult spin. In doing this he draws us into this world; you literally feel as if you stepped in a time machine and went back into your childhood. The children treat the world as if it's this magical place, full of mystery and wonder. We never see the dark side of human nature within this film, cause as children we never did. What Miyazaki does show is how to enjoy life and its simplicities, but not only that he makes us remember that it's alright to feel emotion; to be scared, to laugh, to cry. As adults we very often forget these simple things, bottling everything up, making us bitter and cynical beings.

Of course My Neighbor Totoro is just as gorgeous as any other Studio Ghibli production. My Neighbor Totoro features some of the finest hand-drawn animation I've ever seen. It's amazing that this was done back in the days before computers. Many of the shots are so complex to draw that most animators would shy away from doing without a computer, but not Miyazaki. Now while some fans may despise the dubbed versions of Miyazaki's films done by Disney, I've never minded them, and this is easily one of their better dubs thus far. Dakota and Elle Fanning are perfect as the two sisters. Their authentic chemistry really comes through on screen.

Overall My Neighbor Totoro is a funny, heartwarming film. Miyazaki perfectly struck a chord with the audience on this one. It's an innocent look back at childhood, bringing back the sheer wonder that following a mysterious animal in the backyard could have. Though what this film truly does is make us as adults forget what we are truly missing, but as Totoro does with the girls, Miyazaki shows that there is hope in us rediscovering that innocence and simplicity once more.

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