Review: ‘My Neighbor Totoro’

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 television technical craft, the simple family saga poses no threat to the commercial dominance of Disney cartoonists.

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 television technical 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 onslaught of product.

Apparently a popular household character in Japan, Totoro is a furry forest sprite with magical powers ranging from the mystical to the superhuman. He also 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, their mother is recuperating from some unnamed ailment.

Not only is the tale of a wholesome stripe unseen for generations, 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.

The action slowly builds to a crisis in which their mother is unable to return home for a family weekend. However, while it all seems so dire to the tykes, we soon discover she has merely contracted a mild cold. The revelation is a palpable letdown.

Obviously aimed at an international audience, the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures that produces a nowhere land more confused than fascinating. The characters, despite obvious Japanese names, have Anglo features. But instead of a 1950s television neighborhood, they dwell in unmistakable Asian houses surrounded by rice fields while innocuous pop songs drone on the soundtrack.

Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki has essentially padded a television half-hour into a sluggish theatrical feature. With a half-century of Disney full animation at one’s disposal, the rigid backgrounds and limited character movements appear dull and crude when viewed on a large screen. The muted pastels, homogenized pictorial style and vapid storyline all add up to an extremely lonely neighborhood when Totoro moves into theaters.

My Neighbor Totoro

Japanese

Production

A Troma Inc. release of a Tokuma Group production. Produced by Toru Hara. Exec producer, Yasuyoshi Tokuma. Directed, written by Hayao Miyazaki.

Crew

Editor, Takeshi Seyama; music, Jo Hisaishi; production design, Yoshiharu Sato; art direction, Kazuo Oga; special effects, Kaoru Tanifuji; English lyrics, Severin Browne. production planning supervisor, Tatsumi Yamashita, Hideo Ogata; assistant director, Tetsuya Endo. Reviewed at Sunset Screening Room, L.A., April 28, 1993. MPAA Rating: G. Running Time: 87 min.

Cast

Voices:
Satsuki - Lisa Michaelson
Mei - Cheryl Chase
Dad - Greg Snegoff
Kanta - Kenneth Hartman
Mother - Alexandra Kenworthy
Nanny - Natalie Core

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  1. Thomas says:

    This is a classic case of someone who has only been exposed to one kind of cinema going into something with the wrong expectations. It’s like someone watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” and complaining that it’s not enough like the Flash Gordon serials you grew up with. It’s not that one is objectively superior to the other, but that they’re both aiming for different things, even if they are working in the same general genre.

    No, this isn’t going to be mistaken for a Disney feature—but that’s actually a good thing. I like a lot of Disney films, but they’re hardly the only game in town. The “Disney style” isn’t actually the ultimate ideal that all animators hope to live up to. (In fact, we now know that a whole generation of Disney animators were inspired by Miyazaki, and hoped to live up to the standard that he set with films like this one.)

    I’d recommend the critic—if he is still a critic—learn a bit more about the history of animation.

    Also. Also: An educational break.

    Nobody I know—Japanese or “Anglo”—looks like the characters in this film.

    Nobody I know looks like Belle or Aladdin or Snow White either.

    That’s because they’re animated characters, and not particularly photorealistic ones at that. If one thinks that Satsuki and Mei (etc.) have “Anglo features,” that’s because, barring any obvious “racial” characteristics (black skin, etc.) viewers have a tendency to project their own race onto animated images. Western viewers often ask why anime characters don’t look Japanese—but to the Japanese, they do look Japanese. Or, at least, they look like the standard animated version of a Japanese character. When “filling in the blanks” of non-realistic images, we tend to assume that our own race is the default one, barring obvious indicators to the contrary.

    So… I don’t mind that the critic didn’t like the film. I personally find it one of the most beautiful and charming films out there, but others are free to disagree. I only wish he would bother to question some of his own assumptions about animation and race. As it is, this strikes me as a pretty thoughtless review.

    The only other question is why I’m bothering to comment on a review written in 1993.

  2. Henry Posadas says:

    OMG, you really shouldn’t be a film critic. You don’t know how to watch at all. Too much of a critic’s mind without just trying to enjoy the film. It is an animation with so many hidden layers that must be felt than mere intellectualized. Watch it again without your film critic’s hat on and be a kid again. Of course most film critics are too engrossed in their theories that they forget to just watch. BTW. it may be surprising to you that this is not meant to have a dramatic tension. If you try to look for it then I guess you would be disappointed. Not all films are measured in a classical hollywood narrative structure where the hero has a conflict that needs to be overcome. Too much intellectual analysis is your problem.

    • Henry Posadas says:

      Forgot, did you notice your very critic about the is precisely why it so beloved by 90% of Rotten tomatoes’ other critics? That Miyazaki intentionally made the film without any dramatic tension and crisis? In fact it is intentionally different from Disney (which you think is the bar that needs be emulated by animators) That it actually worked? Ordinary people without being professional critics actually pointed this out. Imagine if 90-99% understood Miyazaki and you didn’t, maybe you should start reviewing how you approach films or maybe you have the wrong profession.

  3. A cold-hearted, cynical, myopic review of a beautiful masterpiece. IMO.

  4. Holy cow…this dude is an idiot. This is right up there with the reviews that panned Citizen Kane and the 1863 criticism of the Gettysburg Address. Laced with casual and characteristically unintentional racism (this guy probably snubbed Selma too, 7 years later)

    I’d delete this one Variety. It’s horrid.

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