What more can be said about MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO? Get this movie. Immediately. Without a doubt one of the best animated features ever made, Japan or otherwise, TOTORO is an outstanding original creation from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. It's about two sisters -- Satsuki and spunky little Mei -- moving with their somewhat scatterbrained but loving father to a new home in the Japanese countryside. But the place isn't just deserted; wonders galore lie within their household. Tiny, fuzzy black balls of soot ("Soot Gremlins") scatter every nook and cranny of the walls, frightened away only by laughter. A tall, luscious camphor tree towers above the other trees in the back yard. And, lastly, the Totoros themselves, absolutely adorable little creatures who look like a cross between a raccoon, rabbit, owl, and guinea pig (a personal bias here, since I owned such a pet who reminds me so much of the Totoros here), live in this very forest, carrying acorns, making huge trees grow at night, and playing ocarinas on the branches of the trees. There is even one really BIG Totoro who sleeps under the tree, so cuddlesome and gentle that you'll swear that he's the equivalent of your pet. Of course, he doesn't just allow Mei to snuggle on his chest. He lets out thunderous roars, shake the ground by jumping with full force, grins as wide as a Cheshire cat (albeit with warmth and generosity), helps others when they're in trouble, and gives acorns wrapped in bamboo leaves in return for gifts. The story isn't all hearts and flowers, however. An emotionally charged subplot involving the sisters' ailing mother (shades of Miyazaki's personal life here) gives TOTORO a dramatic edge. This is particularly evident in the third act, when the girls receive a distressing telegram about their mother. Both Satsuki and Mei are extremely traumatized by this as any real child would be if such a situation occurred in their lifetime. What follows is a tearjerking sequence that builds to a truly happy ending. This mixture of real-life situations, emotions, and magical discoveries found in your nearest back yard make TOTORO feel authentic (even with its fantasy elements). One cannot help but find this quality in any of Miyazaki's films, this one included.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO was not a box office success in either Japan or America, but the film has won over millions of children around the world as well as animation buffs for its gorgeous animation style; the backgrounds are lavishly detailed and imagination is galore in much of the sequences. (It was KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE that would catapult Miyazaki's animation company, Studio Ghibli, into box office success status.)
The movie was originally dubbed into English by Carl Macek and his infamous company, Streamline Pictures in 1993. Believe it or not, this was one of the "best" dubs they've ever produced. As Disney has acquired the rights for Ghibli's movies, though, it was inevitable that they would produce their own version. This has infuriated many, but as someone who fell in love with TOTORO with the Mecak version, I have to say that this new Disney production offers charm and emotion on its own ground. The script is a fresh new translation from the original Japanese (clarifying the origin of Totoro's name), and remains faithful to the meaning of Miyazaki's screenplay, despite a few line changes here and there (nothing major, though). At first, I was a little worried about hearing Dakota and Elle Fanning as Satsuki and Mei, but both ended up captivating me from the start; personally, I think it was great for Disney to cast two actual sisters to play the young girls--it helps their chemistry come alive. The other actors, including a warm, understated Tim Daly, and delightful Lea Salonga provide similarly top quality work. My favorite performances? Pat Carroll, displaying maternal charm and whimsy as Granny (not sounding anything like her most-famous role, Ursula from THE LITTLE MERMAID), and Frank Welker, who does outstanding vocal foley for both Totoro and the Cat Bus. The OP and ED songs have the same lyrics, but are sung by a different singer (Sonya Isaacs), who may please some and annoy others. I'm sure that there will be many who will draw comparisons between the two dubs to the very bitter end, but I think it's great to have more than one adaptation of a beloved story, especially when done by folks who obviously love Miyazaki's works.
As far as the long awaited 2-DVD set from Disney goes, the widescreen visual transfer is absolutely gorgeous--Miyazaki's visuals really shine with pristine clarity on the screen, and the Japanese language track features literal subtitles, too. The extras are the same-old voice talent featurette, storyboards, and trailer we saw on most of the other Disney-Ghibli DVDs, which is sparse to say the least, but better than nothing.
Folks who want the old dub will obviously flock to the FOX pan & scan DVD, but personally, I'd suggest getting both the FOX and Disney releases--the former for nostalgia, the latter for a more professional sounding upgrade. Either way, however, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is far from just another kid's story. With a little bit of luck, grown-ups (and those who consider themselves too "sophisticated" for cartoons) will enjoy it too.