Hayao Miyazaki is a master at his craft. Ever since 'Toy Story' we've been lauding Pixar with the highest of praises for being the kings of animated storytelling while Miyazaki has been doing the same thing for a longer period of time. Now, I know that comparing them is essentially an apples to oranges argument, but it's simply worth noting that Miyazaki and Ghibli Studios are the best of the best and should be discussed in the same breath as those who we perceive as being the best at what they do.
'My Neighbor Totoro' was Miyazaki's fourth animated film as director. It's a film where everything seemed to click from the outset. It's a simple story, as most of Miyazaki's films are, with a magical twist. Two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, are having a tough time dealing with the hospitalization of their mother. They move to the country with their father.
The most memorable aspect of 'Totoro,' besides that indelibly insane cat bus, is how Miyazaki understands children. Mei, the youngest of the two girls, acts, run, jumps, and cries just like small children do. Even though this is an animated film, the way Mei acts is so lifelike, so real, that I saw many characteristics of my own son in her. Other animated films might make the children sassy or snarky; they might make them overly cute or unnaturally comedic. Here, Miyazaki, like always, goes for the "less is more" approach: simple animation, simple storyline, and simple characters.
Satsuki also mirrors the characteristics of an older sister. At times she's annoyed by Mei's constant crying, but she can't help but be protective of her. Satsuki takes of the motherly duties while their mom recuperates. Like many young girls, her maternal instincts naturally kick in when they feel like they're needed. The way Satsuki looks after her little sister is one of the many endearing aspects of this great little film.
Even though Satsuki has taken on the difficult job of being the mother of the household, and she's shown great strength and poise, she – like all of us from time to time – needs help to cope. That's where the magical aspect of the movie comes in. Satsuki and Mei meet a magical creature that lives in the forest surrounding their country home. Its name is Totoro.
Today's cartoons would feel an obligation to explain who this character is, why they're there, where they came from, and so on. Miyazaki thinks better of it. Totoro is just there. His reason for existing is left completely up to the thoughts and feelings of the audience. Is he even real? Or does he only exist in the imagination of the girls? I have my own thoughts about his existence, but that's part of the fun. The movie never feels like it has to explain it to you, so you're left to wonder, just like the girls.
A very special aspect, to me at least, is the climax of the movie. Here's a movie that understands children so well that it knows exactly what makes them act and feel. This isn't a movie that resorts to contrived plot devices or clichéd action-centric scenes. The climax is a completely honest portrayal of what the movie has been building to. An effortless look at basic human caring and the need for families to stick together. It's hard not to love every moment of 'Totoro.'
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Studio Ghibli film which is distributed by Disney. It comes in a 2-disc Combo Pack with a DVD and a 50GB Blu-ray Disc. They're housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. The pack comes complete with a slipcover and a code for Disney Movie Rewards. According to the back of the case this release is supposed to be region free.
This was made in 1988? If I didn't already know that, I would've sworn that 'My Neighbor Totoro' was animated today. Its 1080p presentation is beautiful, clean, and harkens back to the glory days of simple hand-drawn animation.
Disney has provided an absolutely faithful-to-the-source transfer of this beloved film. Colors are striking and strong. Color fills never waver or flicker. Each fill has a clean refined look and feel. Black areas are dark and exhibit very minimal noise. The watercolor-esque backgrounds are lively pieces of art that shine with clarity and abstract precision.
The entire movie is free from any dirt, grime, or scratches. Things that you'd probably expect from a film this old. Honestly, if they did appear every now and then I still would've given the presentation an above average grade. The fact that this presentation is as clear from source noise as it is, is pretty astounding. There aren't too many animated movies from the 80s that make it to Blu-ray without exhibiting the wear and tear of a few decades.
Artifacts are refreshingly nonexistent. Usually animated movies will show signs of banding, aliasing, and ringing. All of which are virtually unseen here (you really have to peel your eyes to catch the few very minor instances of ringing that occur). Fans are going to be more than pleased with the way 'Totoro' turned out visually. It's every bit as enjoyable as the movie.
'Totoro' comes with a couple options. You can either watch it with the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Japanese mix, or you can opt for the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English dub done by Disney, which features a few recognizable names like Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning as Satsuki and Mei.
I'm one to always opt for the Japanese track. The dubbed versions usually drive me nuts. That said, I listened to both and can tell you that, quality wise, they're on equal ground.
The stereo aspect of them gives the sound scape a little depth, although I wouldn't have argued with a full 5.1 mix either. Voices are perfectly clear and never lost or hushed. Sound effects are fun and playful. Directionality, as limited as it is, still provides for some energetic scenes, like when the cat bus comes rumbling in from one side of the frame and disappears out the other. Wind, birds, and the surrounding cacophony of crickets (and whatever other insects that are inhabiting the forest) gives the movie a very realistic audio presentation.
This film understands the simplicities and complexities of childhood. It believes in the power of imagination, the strength of familial ties, and the bond of sisterhood. It's a cute, honest look at two girls dealing with real-life anxieties and how they're able to overcome them together. With amazing video and strong audio, picking up this high-def copy of 'Totoro' should be an easy decision. Highly recommended.