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My Neighbor Totoro DVD Review


In May 2013, My Neighbor Totoro was reissued as a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack.
Click here for our review of that edition.

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Movie & DVD Details

Japanese Theatrical Release: April 16, 1988 / Running Time: 88 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

English Voice Cast: Dakota Fanning (Satsuki), Elle Fanning (Mei), Tim Daly (Father), Pat Carroll (Granny), Lea Salonga (Mother), Frank Welker (Totoro, Catbus), Paul Butcher (Kanta), Matt Adler, Newell Alexander, David Midthunder, J.P. Manoux

Japanese Voice Cast: Noriko Hidaka (Satsuki), Chika Sakamoto (Mei), Shigesato Itoi (Tatsuo Kusakabe), Sumi Shimamoto (Yasuko Kusakabe), Tanie Kitabayashi (Kanta no obâsan), Hitoshi Takagi (Totoro), Yűko Maruyama (Kanta no okâsan), Machiko Washio (Teacher), Reiko Suzuki (Furoi on'na no hito), Masashi Hirose (Kanta no otôsan), Toshiyuki Amagasa (Kanta), Shigeru Chiba (Kusakari-Otoko)

Songs: "Hey Let's Go", "My Neighbor Totoro" / U.S. Theatrical Release: May 7, 1993

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (Japanese, English, French)
Subtitles: English, English captions; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: March 7, 2006
Two single-sided discs (DVD-9 & DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black Keepcase (some with Cardboard Slipcover)

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After dabbling in the heavily fantastic for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky, legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki opted for something simpler and more personal for his next project. My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), released to Japanese theaters in 1988 as a double feature with Isao Takahata's depressing war drama Grave of the Fireflies, would not at all be without magical elements. Indeed, three of the five characters adorning the cover of Disney's new DVD version are furry creatures you won't find in Japan or any part of the globe. But at its heart, Totoro is an earnest family drama that holds universally potent storytelling as its most noticeable and affecting device.

Though the film's setting is, in typical Miyazaki fashion, a bit vague, research reveals a semi-autobiographical nature to Totoro, on which Miyazaki served as writer, director, storyboard artist, and lyricist for one of the two songs. That puts us in the 1950s, just a few years after Japan's formal surrender in World War II. War, as well as any other political or ecological issue, goes untouched here in favor of straightforward, lighthearted character drama.
At the start of the film, the Kusakabe family, consisting of a bespectacled professor father and two young daughters, moves into an old home in the countryside. The girls -- Satsuki (voiced by Dakota Fanning in Disney's new dub) and her younger sister Mei (appropriately enough, Dakota's younger and less seasoned sister Elle) -- display a reasonable childhood mix of excitement and fear in response to their modest, dusty new abode, which they soon learn is inhabited by shy soot "gremlins." Though these black sprites scatter at first sight, they foretell of other magical beings soon to be discovered.

Little worth detailing occurs in the first half of this brisk film, yet chances are you are hooked the entire time. The depicted family life is not especially unusual; instead, it's relatable for anyone who ever was a child or is currently a parent. One of the most unique things about the Kusakabes is that the materfamilias, Yasuko (Lea Salonga), is ill and in a hospital that is far enough away to make her mostly absent for her husband and daughters, a troubling fact which we most notice impacting the curious girls.

Mr. Kusakabe and his two daughters travel to their new home. Mei and Satsuki (voiced by Elle and Dakota Fanning in Disney's new dub) are surprised and intrigued by their new "haunted house."

The extraordinary angle which marks a majority of anime, cinema, and storytelling at large is eventually introduced. Four-year-old Mei discovers and befriends a rather different kind of family which is apparently living in the Kusakabes' new backyard. The three members of this group vary in size; the smallest (a translucent white being with few discernible features) is a fraction of Mei's size, the middle one is about as tall as the girl, while the largest is big enough to support Mei on his rounded stomach (which he does, in their memorable first encounter) as well as a dozen other children her size. Though the enormous one sports a gray coat and the child-sized one is blue, these two definitely resemble each other. Their whiskers and ruffled, light-colored bellies give them an appearance unlike any real animal, though with some creative thinking, they can be viewed as a cross between a cat, a rabbit, an owl, and a panda. Their nature, beyond being spirits of the forest, is irrelevant. As are their names, outside of the largest one, who is specifically called Totoro (Mei's mispronunciation of the Japanese word for "troll"). Totoro, in fact, is the only one capable something resembling speech, and even his cries and sneezes are distinctly of the unintelligible variety (naturally, "voice acting god" Frank Welker does the honors in the English track). None of the spirits can be seen by adults.

By now, if you haven't already seen this film, you're likely scratching your head and about to give up even trying to follow along with this movie synopsis. "Weird, largely unnamed, practically indescribable, and basically mute creatures are central to this film?", you ask. "And I'm supposed to care?," you follow up. The answer to both of those questions is, without a doubt, yes. Call it Miyazaki magic or the power of imagination, but My Neighbor Totoro is a prime example of captivating, story-driven cinema. I'm just at a loss to pinpoint why. My assertion, therefore, probably demands a leap of faith from the not-yet-viewer, but as always, you have my honest word. And you can turn to other critics who have similarly heaped praise on My Neighbor Totoro or ask those of any age who may be familiar with the widely-seen previous dubbing. Few would dispute the claim that Totoro is a remarkable film. They might, however, find it difficult to describe why that is. For a film which seemed abundantly simple to me both times I've viewed it, the undeniable potency that is present suddenly seems awfully challenging to convey in a clear and logical fashion. Even a play-by-play of the screenplay's events would say little and fail to do the film justice.

Satsuki crouches low in her backyard. Does she discover that a plane crashed there? Mei is comfortably perched on top of the large Totoro.

Two things which distinguish Totoro from the Studio Ghibli canon are its extreme amount of humanity and its minimalist style. The former can be readily observed in practically every Ghibli film, whether the characters are mustachioed pig pilots, "pouch"-parachuting raccoon dogs, or the commonplace strong girl protagonist. Nonetheless, it seems to be on especially high order here, which makes the proceedings rather poignant and in little need of cultural translation, regardless of how familiar with anime the viewer is. As for the minimalism, this review should make it evident that there is just less going on here than most Miyazaki films. Couple this with the unusually brief 88-minute running time, and that makes the few elements presented easier to grab onto and give importance to. There is a shortage of dialogue, characters, weird explanation-needing aspects, and plot technicalities. Some perceive this nature as a lack of substance which somehow makes this work less important than one of the studio's denser fare. I would argue that it makes the affair more taut and embraceable than the Ghibli film which may largely work but get bogged down in curious complexities. Totoro is Miyazaki at his most basic and that is not a bad thing.

There seems to be little debate that Totoro is Miyazaki's most personal film to date. His mother suffered from tuberculosis, which can only be guessed is the disease afflicting Satsuki and Mei's mother. If the director never bounced on the tummy of a genuine forest spirit, then he nonetheless seems to have pondered it, as his relentless imagination on display here and elsewhere speaks to something inside us all.

Out of the twelve Studio Ghibli films that Buena Vista Home Entertainment has released to DVD, My Neighbor Totoro stands out as being the only one to have previously come to Region 1 DVD. Fox issued the film on disc in December of 2002, but as is not uncommon for family films, it was treated with little regard, receiving a fullscreen and dubbed-only presentation and being accompanied by no bonus features. For this re-release, the film enjoys a major upgrade as far as supplements and presentation go. It also has been treated to a brand new English dub featuring a cast comprised of a mix of recognizable live action performers and voice over veterans.

In the film's climactic sequence, Satsuki searches tirelessly for her missing sister. The Catbus: it's a cat, it's a bus. And if you look closely, it's a male.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Unlike its last Region 1 DVD, My Neighbor Totoro is treated here to a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Like several other Disney/Studio Ghibli releases, it's ever so slightly bordered on all four sides, apparently to protect the visuals from the overscan settings that are inherent to most televisions. Totoro is the third oldest Ghibli film that's now in the Disney catalog and, believe it or not, it's nearly twenty years old. Even if you don't recall those facts, you will find the video quality here largely pleasing.
The bright yellows, oranges, and pinks that turn up much more frequently in Ghibli's work than Disney's in-house output are complemented by a fair amount of blue, green, and earth tones. All of these colors are capably presented. Consistent and vibrant with no evidence of bleeding, they're especially satisfying when compared to the washed-out trailer included. In a couple of dark scenes, the colors fade out, making characters look like they're in grayscale, but I imagine this was intentional and not a flaw of the mastering.

The element is quite serviceable; it delivers a nice amount of detail and a clean picture. This transfer holds more grain than the two other Ghibli films concurrently released, but the amount is negligible and not necessarily worth knocking points off for. Character and item edges seem sharp to a bit of an excess; this usually entails ringing and is the result of edge enhancement. But if that questionable practice has been applied here, it has been issued in moderation. Like any other issue sticklers might take this set to task for, the shortcomings are mild.

The sound presentations offered in the native Japanese as well as English and French dubs are all fairly basic two-channel Dolby Digital Stereo. Though the Fox DVD release billed a Surround track, reviews of that confirm that no sound was detected as emanating from the rear speakers. This new mix probably sounds about the same, if not better, as I didn't find anything disappointing about the audio. By default, the disc plays back in the English dub, with a subtitle track translating the infrequent on-screen Japanese characters. Outside of, I believe, two instances, these translations were extremely minor and pretty unnecessary. They, of course, could be turned off. Purists will insist on listening to the original Japanese mix, and purists who can't understand that language will turn to subtitles, of which there are two choices: a literal translation of the Japanese screenplay and hearing-impaired-enhanced "captions" from the English dub. On certain DVD-ROM programs, you can run both and compare the differences, minor though they tend to be.

Dakota and Elle Fanning appear in "Behind the Microphone." Dakota may be missing her front teeth, but she's got the most impressive resumé in her family. No singing required: Lea Salonga gets to just speak in the film and this voice cast featurette. As you can see, the Opening Title Sequence Art is missing something. (Credits.)

BONUS FEATURES

While almost all of Studio Ghibli's films have been treated to two-disc Disney DVDs, few have been really jam-packed with bonus features. Unfortunately, My Neighbor Totoro falls on the light side, just barely meeting the expectations for its class. Disc 1 holds three brief video supplements. "Behind the Microphone" (5:38) is the standard
English voice cast featurette, which contains interview clips and recording session footage of not just Dakota and Elle Fanning as the case mentions, but also Tim Daly, Lea Salonga, and Pat Carroll. As usual, nearly every cast member speaks of the genius of Miyazaki and loving the film. There's as much love offered for the Sisters Fanning, while Salonga interestingly points out that this is her first speaking voiceover work, having previously lent her singing talents to the two non-Caucasian Disney princesses.

Next, "Opening & Ending Title Sequence Art" (4:05) delivers exactly what is promised - the animation from the opening credits and the still scenery from the end credits, without the names on screen. Viewed this way, it's really noticeable how repetitive the opening animation is. Each part runs two minutes and is most redeemed by the catchy English-translated song ("Hey Let's Go" and "My Neighbor Totoro", respectively) which accompanies its imagery.

Rounding out the disc, we get just a single 2-minute original trailer (in Japanese, with optional English subtitles), which prominently features the end credits song and is short on dialogue.

Disc 2 holds just one additional bonus, which depending on where you stand, is probably either easily the best supplement included or not worth the effort of changing discs. It is the entire film in storyboard format, illustrating yet again how Studio Ghibli directors, especially Miyazaki, believe in meticulously mapping out the entire film in sketches. The predominantly two-color storyboard cut is set to the final sound mix in your choice of English and Japanese and contains the same 12 chapter stops as the feature does on Disc 1. It's worth noting that the opening credits remain fully animated (but are only offered in Japanese) and the end credits are fully absent.

As one of the most beloved films in the Studio Ghibli canon, it definitely would have been nice to get some more bonus features on the film itself. Sure, this handily surpasses the barren and insufficient Fox disc, but in Japan, the film's DVD included multiple trailers for the Totoro/Fireflies double billing (Fireflies is oddly not covered in Disney's distribution deal), a 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, and a piece on Tokyo's Studio Ghibli Museum. Would subtitling and providing these have been more work than it was worth? I doubt it. Likewise, another relevant and highly interesting inclusion would have been Mei and the Kittenbus, a 15-minute short film featuring the younger sister from Totoro and the spawn of the Catbus. As far as I could find, this short film, which briefly played at the aforementioned Ghibli Museum, has not turned up on any DVD, but who among Totoro fans wouldn't want to see it?

If you want to watch the entire movie like this, you're in luck. Pop in Disc 2. Totoro shows off his Mary Poppins skills for his two young and equally airborne friends on Disc 1's animated main menu.

MENUS and PACKAGING

The 16x9 menus are pretty nicely done. The Main Menu features an animated introduction segueing into a looped montage of Totoro, Satsuki and Mei flying around. Totoro's forceful puddle bound makes for a transition to any sub-menu. All of the menus are accompanied by a memorable excerpt of Joe Hisaishi's score. The basic packaging is a standard-width keepcase, with a double-sided chapter insert and another insert promoting spring's Narnia and Chicken Little DVD releases. While at least some copies are reported to boast slipcover packaging, this review copy did not. As usual, the slipcovers are likely limited to the initial batches of discs, but they seem to be in an unusually limited supply for Totoro, if that sort of thing matters to you.

Sneak peeks play at the start of Disc 1 for Miyazaki and Takahata films on Disney DVD, The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition, and Chicken Little. The Sneak Peeks menu also holds promos for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and AirBuddies.

And you thought only crazies waited for the bus! Totoro proves you wrong in one of the most memorable shots from the film. The Catbus, Mei, and Satsuki look over things contently in their final appearance aside from the end credits.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Disney's release of My Neighbor Totoro corrects a DVD injustice and eliminates any need for Fox's fullscreen, dubbed, barren and now discontinued disc of the film. The widescreen transfer and stereo sound mix here may not be perfect, but both are free of any major troubles, as is the appropriate new English dub. Though this is a two-disc set, it is remarkably light on bonus features and what is included is pretty disposable. It's too bad that more substantial bonuses on the making and success of this film were not included.

Still, you won't find anyone putting up a successful argument that the feature isn't the most important element of any DVD. With that in mind, My Neighbor Totoro garners a fairly strong recommendation. It may not be equipped with reference quality picture and sound or highly insightful supplements the way that Miyazaki's two latest works, Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away were. But down to earth and gentle as it may be, I would argue that this movie is better than either of those and most Studio Ghibli efforts. Some may lament that there aren't the open ends and questions that inevitably stem from Miyazaki's more fantasy-minded fare, but storytelling this compelling and effective is hard to come by, both in animation and live action cinema.

Those who already consider Miyazaki a genius likely need no encouragement to pick this DVD up and, in fact, they probably have in the two weeks in which it has been available. Everyone else -- from those who like any of the Ghibli anime they've seen to those who have been put off by the weirdness of it to the entirely uninitiated -- is encouraged to check out and enjoy Totoro. You won't be disappointed by this film if you give it an open-minded chance.

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Related Reviews
My Neighbor Totoro (Blu-ray + DVD)
Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli:
Howl's Moving Castle (2005) • Spirited Away (2002) • Porco Rosso (1992) • Castle in the SkyNausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Whisper of the Heart (1995) • The Cat Returns (2002) • My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) • Pom Poko (1994)

Disney DVDs Featuring the English Voice Cast of My Neighbor Totoro:
Dakota Fanning: Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch (2005) | Lea Salonga: Aladdin (1992) • Mulan (1998) | Pat Carroll: The Little Mermaid (1989)

Disney Movies of the Late 1980s:
Oliver & Company (1988) • Benji the Hunted (1987) • Cheetah (1989)

New and Recent Disney DVD Releases:
Chicken Little (2005) • Dream On Silly Dreamer (2005) • Modern Marvels: Walt Disney World (2005)

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Reviewed March 21, 2006.