← Back to Reviews

My Neighbor Totoro

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 ("dust bunnies", or "soot gremlins", depending on which dub you watch) 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 used to own one 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 My Neighbor 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 My Neighbor 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, with everyone involved, particularly Lisa Michelson and Cheryl Chase as Satsuki and Mei, turning in very fine performances. As Disney has acquired the rights for Ghibli's movies, though, it was inevitable that they would produce their own version. Many longtime fans of the former version were furious, declaring that the Disney version is an abomination of something from their childhood. However, I beg to differ. As someone who fell in love with My Neighbor Totoro with the Macek version, I have to say that this new Disney production is entertaining in its own right. 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. Elle is actually the juicier of the two, although that's mainly because she's blessed with a great role to begin with. That isn't to discredit Dakota, though; my only quibble is that she underplays some of the more emotional scenes toward the end, but otherwise I have no problems with her performance. The only issues is that neither are Lisa nor Cheryl, but that's just it: they are bringing their own interpretations to these characters, not copying the originals. 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.

Probably the only (minor) false note of Disney's dub is in the handling of the opening and ending songs. The translated lyrics are the same as in the FOX version, but the singer is different. Unlike the warm tones of the nameless singer who delivered "Hey Let's Go" and the showclosing "Totoro", respectively, these songs are instead handled by one Sonya Isaacs. Her voice is competent enough and she hits high notes appropriately, but her approach to the opening song has more of a "gung-ho" attitude and as such, is a bit less charming. She does fare a little better in the ending song, particularly in the bits that she harmonizes parts of the last couple of verses. One other difference is that the songs sound more crisper and vibrant in the new dub but come across as somewhat scratchy-sounding in the older one. So, basically, there are pros and cons to both versions: one is more soothing but more "old" in terms of clarity, while the other offers technical improvements but not so much on the singing end.

Otherwise, however, there really aren't any major quibbles I can find with Disney's dub of My Neighbor Totoro. There is no denying that the FOX dub is a classic of its time, but the newer reinterpretation is by no means a disservice. While the arguments over which version is superior may rage on until the very bitter end, it's obvious that the creators of both dubs are fans of Miyazaki, and it shows in both takes. Each takes their own approach to the story, and are neither better nor worse. They simply are what they are.

FOX's initial release of My Neighbor Totoro was a pan & scan DVD which contains only the Streamline dub and zero extras. The first two-disc DVD set from Disney provided a widescreen presentation of the film as well as the original Japanese language track. Disney issued the film again, oddly enough, in 2010, with a considerable amount of new extras on the second disc. In addition to newly recorded interviews with Miyazaki, there was also a half-hour documentary detailing the different locations Miyazaki went to in order to bring the world to life. Of course, if you already own either DVD release, then this newest edition may not be necessary. Disney later brought the film to BD, sans the Streamline dub of course, but the extras ported over and an absolutely magnificent visual transfer of the movie. Even on DVD, it's never looked this good. GKids recently picked up the Ghibli rights from Disney and provided their own release of this film. The content is virtually identical in both, other than a new textless opening and ending scene which was mysteriously omitted from the Disney BD. But either way, if you already own the Disney BD, the GKIDS may not be necessary, as there was nothing wrong about the Disney one. (Of course the old dub still isn't there.)

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.