My Neighbor Totoro (impressions)

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Los Angeles Times

May 7, 1993


By Charles Solomon

The gentle warmth of "My Neighbor Totoro," a new animated feature opening city-wide today, provides a welcome respite from the rapid-fire mayhem that usually characterizes Japanese animation seen in the United States. Instead of the standard sci-fi laser battles and explosions, writer-director Hayao Miyazaki offers a charming fantasy that stresses the affectionate bond between two young sisters.

While their mother remains in the hospital, 4-year old Mei and 10- year old Satsuki move into an aged house in the country with their professor-father. When Mei explores the nearby woods, she meets Totoro, a seven-foot forest spirit who looks like an outsized cross between a bunny rabbit and a fuzzy throw pillow. The father believes Mei's story about meeting this magical guardian, and respectfully asks Totoro to watch over the children, which he does with the aid of a few assistants and a 12-legged "catbus" that is half animal/half machine.

Guided by their supernatural friend, the sisters share a series of adventures, soaring over the landscape while Totoro's roars make the winds blow. But the story remains focused on the affection Mei and Satsuki share. Unlike many recent cartoon chums, the two sisters seem genuinely fond of each other, and their camaraderie never feels saccharine or forced.

An accomplished director, Miyazaki enjoys a cult following in both Japan and the U.S. for such fast-paced adventures as "Lupin III: Castle Cagliostro." It's rare to see such skillful cutting, staging and camera work in a non-Disney animated film.

The weakest aspect of "Totoro" is the animation itself, which never rises above the level of Saturday morning kidvid. The characters move jerkily, and many of the designs are awkward-looking: Mei has a wide, frog-like mouth that shows all of her back teeth whenever she yells, which is often.

But despite these limits, "My Neighbor Totoro" (Times rated: Family) is a gentle and affirming film. It's certain to delight smaller children, although boys accustomed to the slam-bang violence of super- hero cartoon features and TV shows may chafe at its leisurely pace.


May 14, 1993


3 *'s out of 4

by Joseph Gelmis

Japanese animation covers a vast spectrum of tastes and styles, from the ultraviolent and futuristic "Japanimation" (aka anime), which has a home video cult following in the United States, to G-rated kiddie fare like "My Neighbor Totoro."

Japanimation is too hyperactive for general audiences. But, unlike some of the more ambitious and confused animated features that glutted theatres last year, "My Neighbor Totoro" is simple and easy for the kindergarten set to follow and pleasant to look at.

True, it wasn't funny or engrossing enough to suit my 13-year-old companion. But her sister, 8, loved it. She asked all the right questions, laughed on cue, responded with concern where she was intended to.

The story combines fantasy and realistic family problems. Two sisters, Satsuki and May [sic], move into a long-empty house in the country with their father. Their mother, whom they visit briefly, is weak and hospitalized with an unexplained illness.

The fabulous creature Totoro keeps the girls busy. The big guy, who can fly and blow gale-force winds and do all sorts of neat things, is a grinning giant, somewhere between Cheshire cat and owl, who lives unseen by adults in the foliage of a colossal tree. He introduces the girls to a huge cat that is also a high-speed bus.

The movements of humans and fantasy creatures are lifelike, though the backgrounds are motionless. The dubbed soundtrack, enunciated with exaggerated care in English so even tots can understand the story, lacks the fluidity and grace of writer/director Hayao Miyazaki's animation. And it should be noted, if only for the record, the Japanese girls and their father have been Europeanized--probably for the purpose of global marketing.

Miyazaki is a popular animator in Japan. His films have spun off a Disney-like boom in merchandising. If your child likes this movie, be advised you may become suddenly aware of Miyazaki's presence through stuffed animals in toy stores or three books, incorporating original drawings from a trio of his films--"My Neighbor Totoro", "Kiki's Delivery Service", and "Laputa, the Castle in the Sky"--now in U.S. bookstores.

New York Daily News

sometime between May 13 and May 15, 1993


(Rating: 1.5 *'s out of 4)

by The Phantom of the Movies

While press releases compare the title creature of the Japanese cartoon feature "My Neighbor Totoro" with Mickey Mouse, the mute, outsized feline seems more a benign Godzilla for pre-schoolers.

There's no doubt Totoro is a licensing cash cow for its owner, the Tokuma Group, though; in Japan, its bewhiskered image adorns everything from pillows to tote bags.

It's unlikely Totoro will score as heavily here. For starters, the cryptic, flying-cat critter who lends young sisters Satsuki and Mei a helping paw takes a backseat to the narrative's more mundane detailing of the girls' adjustment to a new neighborhood.

"Japanimation" buffs and fans of animator Hayao Miyazaki's previous, less juvenile-targeted features, like "Laputa: Castle in the Sky", aren't likely to locate enough entertainment value here to keep them awake past a reel or two (though the actress supplying young Mei's shrieky falsetto voiceover prevented yours truly from dozing off).

In short, "My Neighbor Totoro" doesn't offer much more than an expanded version of the kiddie programing found on Saturday morning TV.

New York Times

May 14, 1993

Even a Beast is Sweet as Can Be

By Stephen Holden

What will American children make of "My Neighbor Totoro," a Japanese animated film whose tone is so relentlessly goody-goody that it crosses the line from sweet into saccharine?

The film creates an idealized vision of family life that is even more unreal than the perkiest 1950's television sitcom. In this storybook world, parents possess infinite reserves of encouragement and patience, and their children are unfailingly polite and responsible little angels. In the English-language version of the film, the actors speak in such uniformly cheery and soothing tones that they could turn even an incorrigible optimist like Mr. Rogers into a grouch.

"My Neighbor Totoro" follows the adventures of two little girls, Satsuki and her younger sister, Lucy, who move with their father to a house in the country while their mother recovers in the hospital from an unnamed illness.

Their new home is haunted by all sorts of benign magical presences. Among the more exciting moments in this serenely paced film is when swarms of dust bunnies living in the attic flee en masse in a late- evening windstorm. Of the many magical beings who inhabit the property, the most impressive is a mythical creature named Totoro, a cuddly beast that resembles a bear crossed with an owl crossed with a seal, has whiskers and roars gently. Totoro lives in an enchanted hollow at the bottom of a tree trunk.

A familiar figure in Japanese children's literature and animated films, Totoro appears only when he feels like it. But those appearances usually coincide with emergencies that require magic, as when a lost child needs to be found or an urgent message delivered.

Among other feats, the creature can fly and make giant trees sprout in the middle of the night and then disappear by morning. For transportation, he uses a magic bus that soars and loops over the landscape. And he can be seen only by children.

When "My Neighbor Totoro," which was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is dispensing enchantment, it can be very charming. The scenes in which the girls have midnight adventures and witness miracles have the yearning dream-like exhilaration of Mary Poppins's nocturnal adventures with her charges. Too much of the film, however, is taken up with stiff, mechanical chit-chat.

My Neighbor Totoro" is visually very handsome. All the action is set in lush Japanese landscapes whose bright blue skies and gorgeous sunsets evoke a paradisiacal garden of earthly delights.

San Francisco Chronicle

May 8, 1993

'Dust Bunnies' Hop to Life in 'Totoro'

by Peter Stack

Verdant springtime in rural Japan is one of the mail charms in "My Neighbor Totoro", a children's animated film from one of Japan's leading film animators, Hayao Miyazaki, whose story of round, fuzzy imaginary rabbits arrived at Bay Area theaters yesterday in an English language version.

As in other films by the celebrated Miyazaki--his "Porco Rosso" was a major box office hit in Japan last year--"My Neighbor Totoro" is drawn in an expansive, naturalistic way that makes an atmosphere of trees, rice fields and hills unraveling in the distance a hypnotic shadow character. In some scenes this nature is so delicious it becomes a poetical presence.

In "Totoro", the story is literally about shadow figures--the Totoro are bloated and happy rabbits visible only to children. They are central characters--especially an enormous one who sleeps by day and wanders on missions of good deeds by night--in an amusing story about two girls and their father who move to a dilapidated farmhouse to await, with some anxiety, the recovery of an ailing wife and mom in a nearby hospital. Sometimes the big grinning rabbit rides on a 12-legged "cat bus" that whisks along the ground, but can fly or tightrope-walk along high-tension power lines. Exotic and fun.

People are kind in this film, and that makes it a treat for kids, at least, and likely for some of the adults who will accompany them to the theater. But the action is a little pokey at times, far from the punchup style of most animated films. Little sister Mei (voice of Cheryl Chase) is an exhuberant, pigtailed preschooler who demands a lot of attention from her big sister Satsuki (Lisa Michaelson), but Satsuki has to go to school, leaving Mei to her own devices. Dad, a university anthropology professor, is a warm hearted man but he has to work a lot.

The first indication that life in the country will be extraordinary is when the girls see the run-down farmhouse they will be living in, and find the place loaded with that seems like cockroaches to us. But the kids are able to explain away the critters as mere "dust bunnies" tricking their vulnerable imaginations. As one after another soji (sic) divider is opened to air out old rooms, the figments scurry. But left behind are glimmering, unexplained acorns--the mysterious Totoro's favorite snack.

Near the house, a mountainous camphor tree spreads and rises, and it is here that Mei - after wandering through gardens and mossy roots--first meets the big Totoro. He is sleeping like a lamb in a cavern of limbs, and the playful Mei is so absorbed that she too falls asleep. This sets up the first of two frantic searches by big sister, who then gets her own chance to meet Totoro and two tiny Totoro babies. The film--Totoro ultimately helps rescue Mei from a far more perilous adventure--is somber as animated features go. Miyazaki--many childrens' books of his films have been published--has an affection for beautiful pictures that sometimes have the look of traditional Japanese watercolors, composed with utmost simplicity, but revealing manifold shadings. Among imagery most memorable in "My Neighbor Totoro" is a gathering storm segment that is a stunning natural drama of deepening grays. And oh, those fuzzy wuzzies are really cute.

San Jose Mercury News

May 10, 1993


By Bob Strauss

They do things differently in Japan.

Take, for instance, "My Neighbor Totoro," one of the most popular films in Japanese history. Though not without its delights, this cartoon feature is likely to intrigue only the very youngest American children. Parents may appreciate its benign, very G-rated ambience, but for at least half its length--and, unfortunately, the first half--this film is a lullaby for all ages.

Translated into English, "Totoro" is the brainchild of Hayao Miyazaki. The press kit calls him the Japanese Walt Disney, but except for the cuddly Totoro creature--a big kind of bunny bear with a Cheshire smile and magical powers--there is no resemblance between the two animators' work.

The drawing here is quite pretty and realistically detailed, but the actual animation is as limited as it comes. There is a herky-jerky quality to the characters' movements, and it's rare when more than a quarter of the frame is in motion at any given time. Compared with the swirling kineticism of "Alladin," "Totoro" is practically a still life.

It's the story of two wide-eyed little girls, Satsuki and Mei, who move with their father into a country house while their mother is in a hospital several valleys away. They undergo a sweet initiation into pastoral joys--polliwogs, acorns and the like--and some very mild thrills from their new home's uncanny soot sprites.

Slightly past the nod-off point of all this, Mei falls, Alice-like, through a hollow tree. She lands on the hibernating Totoro--whom only children can see--and soon, literally, is joining him in flights of fancy.

The film has something vague to say about childhood fears of mortality, but mainly it is a celebration of nature and the supernatural. The girls are immensely cute, and there isn't a mean grown-up in sight.

Totoro could catch on over here; he has an eccentric grace that calls to mind a big, gray, furry Harpo Marx. You gotta love him. And his movie is lovable, if not exactly the live-wire experience the best American animation can achieve.


May 10, 1993

by Leonard Klady

Troma, purveyors of such unusual and fitfully crass entertainments as "Toxic Avenger" and "Sgt. Kabukiman," are off on a different and difficult rocky path with the animated Japanese kidpic "My Neighbor Totoro." Displaying no more than adequate TV tech-craft, the simple family saga poses no threat to the commercial dominance of Disney cartoonists. U.S. box office prospects will be fleeting, likely no more than a blip among the upcoming product onslaught.

Apparently a popular household character in Japan, Totoro is a furry forest sprite with powers ranging from the mystical to the superhuman. He can only be seen by children, though adults recall his memory fondly.

The story centers on two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who move to rural Japan with their professor father. In a far-off city hospital, mom is rec uperating from an unnamed ailment.

Not only is the tale of a rare wholesome stripe, but is virtually absent of dramatic tension. Instead, it largely concentrates on the journey of wonderment in which the girls discover a new environment and the creatures, both real and fanciful, of the region. They are indeed cuddly and have a few tricks that are mildly diverting.

Obviously aimed at an international audience, the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures. The characters, despite obvious Japanese names, have Anglo features. But instead of a 1950s TV neighborhood, they live in unmistakably Asian dwellings set amid rice fields.

Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki has essentially padded a TV half-hour into a sluggish feature. The rigid backgrounds and limited movements appear dull and crude when viewed on a large screen.

Seattle Times

May 6, 1993


by John Hartl

[three stars] "My Neighbor Totoro," animated feature directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki. Opens tomorrow at Alderwood, Aurora, Grand Illusion, Lewis & Clark, Newmark, Totem Lake, SeaTac Mall Cinemas. "G"-- General audiences. Unlike the series of ultra-violent "splattertoons" from Japan that have been playing art houses in some cities, this is a charmingly whimsical, English-dubbed cartoon that's getting a wide release this weekend in the suburbs.

Previously shown here at last year's Japanese Film Festival, "My Neighbor Totoro" is the story of two city children, Satsuki and her younger sister Mei, who move to the country and make acquaintance with forest playmates their parents can't see. Their mother is ill at a country hospital, and the girls and their father have moved to an apparently haunted house to be near her.

The kids are enchanted with the place, which comes equipped with magical Tribble-like creatures they call dust bunnies. Near the house is a mysterious giant camphor tree that's part of a forest that reveals more hidden treasures, including Catbus, a 12-legged creature/vehicle that takes them on rides through the woods, and Totoro, a furry playmate and guardian who sounds like Godzilla and looks like a cross between an owl and a bloated penguin.

The early scenes deal with the blissful relationship the girls have with their parents, especially their father, a scientist and university professor who does more than tolerate their new enthusiasms. Indeed, he claims it's been his lifelong dream to live in a haunted house; he believes that long ago "trees and men were the best of friends."

Still, he sleeps through Totoro's most spectacular nocturnal demonstration of otherworldly powers. Even the girls aren't quite sure what they saw the next morning.

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki (best-known in this country for the much-praised "Laputa: The Castle in the Sky"), the movie is based on Miyazaki's book, which recently turned up in an Americanized version from Tokuma Publishing in Bellevue. Book and film were hugely popular five years ago in Japan, where Miyazaki followed them up with last year's top- grossing Japanese film, "Porco Rosso."

Miyazaki's appreciation of miraculous possibilities and childhood visions is what drives "Totoro," not the rather trumped-up drama of Mei's disappearance during the final stretch. The movie has a lulling, gently wry quality that makes its commercial success in a mayhem-dominated market a de [???; ...; "delightful exception," perhaps???]