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.