Title: My Neighbor Totoro
A father and his two young daughters move out to the Japanese countryside to be near the hospital where the mother is a patient. The girls soon discover a number of forest spirits – magic and mild adventure ensues.
Seriously. Don’t be settin’ your baby in front of the TV but you can start young with this one. Certain kids (note: certain kids, like our sensitive, artistic, and narratively hungry 11-year-old son) will be able to watch this throughout elementary school. Especially if they enjoyed it when they were young and you don’t do too many repeat viewings. It’s a good one to revisit after staying away for a year. As the kids grow they start to notice more and different stuff.
There’s really not a lot to provide warning for here. Some of the magical creatures are introduced in a mildly creepy way, the soot sprites, the cat bus, but nothing bad happens. It’s important to keep in mind that this is a Japanese film so there are a few cultural items westerners may need to adjust to. At one point the main characters take a family bath (tastefully discreet). The cat bus is male – and yes, you see his gonads even though, considering the rest of his anatomy, they are almost an abstraction.
We didn’t know a lot about Totoro when we first showed it to the kids and it was a revelation. I was used to western children’s films that were full of Cinderella stories or the heroic cycle. Here was a movie that makes waiting for a bus an engrossing experience (I’m not kidding). Sometimes I need to be reminded how children see the world and how the imagination can make it magical. My Neighbor Totoro does an excellent job of illustrating the wonder and discovery of a new place, particularly in a sylvan setting.
The characters you encounter in the film are also wildly different from the standard characterizations you get in most western children’s entertainment. The father, the girls, Granny and the other people you meet are realistically human in their portrayal but Totoro, the Cat Bus, and the soot sprites are beyond anything I had encountered before and were a refreshing change of pace from western clichés.
Totoro, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki in general, have been a staple in our movie library since we first discovered it and I would insist that every family with a TV make time for this one. But don’t take my word for it. All the Disney re-releases of Miyazaki’s films (known as the Walt Disney of Japan, by the way) now come with a fawning introduction by John Lasseter, the creative genius behind Pixar. If your kids can’t get enough of Toy Story and Finding Nemo this is where they need to be.
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