Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #246
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning (English version)
Hayao Miyazaki is an animation icon, and after seeing only Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, I'm starting to hold his Studio Ghibli in nearly as high a regard as Pixar Studios. Miyazaki's visual identity is completely unique and immersive, and Totoro has become the flagship film for Ghibli, even lending the studio its now instantly recognizable logo. Totoro has even crossed the border and made an appearance in Pixar's latest film, Toy Story 3, indicating a very strong influence on their studio. My Neighbor Totoro is probably the earliest Miyazaki film familiar to most Americans, and it's a wonderful starting point. It brings in all of his strongest elements – childhood innocence forced to mature rapidly, supernatural forces that interact in the human realm, an overarching feeling of whimsy played off of even in the darkest moments – and is as expansive as any animated film I've seen.
Miyazaki's gorgeous animation, as one would expect, drives the entire movie. The artwork is often pastoral and picturesque in the non-supernatural parts of the movie, reflecting the move of a father and two young daughters to the countryside to be closer to their mother, who is recovering from an undisclosed long-term illness and never leaves the hospital over the course of the movie. The two daughters, ten-year-old Satsuki and four-year-old Mei, take comfort in the companionship of a forest troll called Totoro – a completely different conception, by the way, than the Western vision of a troll; Totoro looks and acts more like Pokémon's Snorlax than, say, something out of The Lord of the Rings. Totoro rides on a bus made out of a giant cat and gives acorns to the girls to plant in their mom's garden. It's left ambiguous whether he actually exists, but either way, he represents a sense of comfort for two girls going through a lot in their lives, and their friendship with Totoro is beautiful, with each party doing wonderful, adorable things for the other. The famous scene where Totoro and the girls wait at the bus stop in the rain and they teach him how to use an umbrella is seriously the cutest thing I've ever seen.
I think it's wonderful that the Walt Disney Company has picked up distribution rights for Studio Ghibli titles and given them high-quality dubs and a wider Western audience. The films of Hayao Miyazaki need to be seen, and unfortunately in our occidental-centric world, people outside of Asia would rarely see them if there weren't dubs. Disney has made sure that the dubs that do exist are of the very highest quality, and even if American kids won't go out to the theaters in droves to see the latest Miyazaki picture, they're at least much more likely to see it than they would be if they were forced to read subtitles or listen to terrible, low-budget dubs. This is one of those times where the megacorporation has done something to help art. God bless 'em.
The Good: Something as vague as "Miyazaki's art" probably won't suffice here, so I'll zero in on the animation in the tree-growing sequence. My God, it's gorgeous. Also, I appreciate that Miyazaki doesn't pull any punches about the girls' mom – it's entirely possible that she might die (the girls address it themselves), and at the end of the film, even though she promises to get better quickly, she's still in the hospital. Pretty bold move, which should be applauded.
The Bad: Jeez, I dunno. It's pretty consistently great. Not my favorite genre and therefore not one of my favorite films, but for what it does I can hardly imagine it being done better.
The Skinny: I would say it should be higher than #246, and it should, but if you look at the list now, it's moved into the top 200. Well done, voters.