Often touted as Miyazaki’s best film, My Neighbor Totoro has been defined as a large hole in my movie-watching experience for far too long. More people have recommended this movie to me than have recommended an ER visit for a punctured lung. I think one guy may have actually suggested Totoro could deal with the punctured lung, as well. So I did what anyone would do, after years of nagging: I Netflix’d it.
And my verdict is: Eh.
Okay, okay, that may not be entirely fair. The film was quite enjoyable. As a lover of animated films, this was a real joy to watch. It’s not just the inherent charm or realism of the characters, or even the quality of the animation, although all of those things are wonderful. No, it’s the attention to detail. It’s the way the father’s hat is almost swept off his head when he turns unexpectedly into the wind. It’s the way the little girl claps a mote of dust between both hands, then runs through the house with outstretched arms. It’s the sense of passing time, with explanations of why the children are out of school one day, but not the next. It’s the way the characters don’t look so detached from the backgrounds, the way they do in most western cell animation from that era. It’s the same kinds of thing that sells every Miyazaki movie, when it comes right down to it. You could watch hours of it without your eyeballs getting tired.
I knew this was an old film, but I didn’t know quite how old until I took a closer look at the DVD envelope after coming back from a bathroom break. I did a double take when I saw it: 1988. I remember what Disney films looked like in 1988, and even well into the 1990s. I remember a scene in The Little Mermaid, where Ariel is rushing down a flight of stairs, and noticing how blatantly her footfalls did not coincide with the steps she was supposedly running down. I remember noticing this as a little kid. Studio Ghibli would have taken the care to make sure every step was animated realistically, even if that meant not being able to squeeze a 100-step staircase into a two-second action shot.
The payoff comes when the movie starts introducing magical imagery into the mix: the fantastic creatures who live in the woods just in the periphery of the human characters. Because the kids look and act and move so deliberately, the otherworldly nature of the film’s fantasy elements look all the more otherworldly. This type of praise can be heaped on Totoro by the bucketful, and indeed on every Miyazaki film I’ve seen to date. You could watch this for hours, too.
But that’s all the film was: wonderful imagery. I found myself craving more. There was virtually no plot, or conflict, or resolution. Adorable, cherub-like little girls have adventures in their new country house. They meet and befriend a giant furry monster. The end.
It’s a kid’s movie, is what it is. If I were six years old I would have been absolutely spellbound. Heck, if I didn’t already have more substantial Miyazaki flicks at home in my collection, I would have been spellbound myself, and I’m pushing thirty. But the criticism stands: an idyllic setting coupled with a non-threatening spiritual adventure and a virtually nonexistent conflict was not enough to grab me. It reminded me too much of Ponyo.
I realize I’m probably the only person on Earth who has said, “Totoro reminded me too much of Ponyo,” rather than the other way around. Heh.
What was missing from the story was a real emotional investment. The two girls who share Totoro‘s spotlight are moved to the country because their mother is sick… but every time we-the-viewer see Mother onscreen, she looks fine. When the girls receive word she may have made a turn for the worse they are understandably devastated, but we-the-viewer are quickly reassured that it’s not really the case. When the younger sister goes missing and the village is mobilized in an effort to save her, the older sister is motivated to courageous and absolutely selfless deeds… but we-the-viewer don’t get to share the tension, because we know the missing girl will turn up okay.
That’s the kind of movie this is, after all: things all turn out okay. Usually the conflict in these types of animated films is not that things turn out okay, but rather how. We know Ariel and Eric are going to triumph over the monstrous sea-witch, but we are engaged anyway because there is a sea-witch, and because she creates a thunderstorm, and because she has a hideous evil belly laugh. In Totoro the solution to finding the missing little girl is immediately evident to the viewer. It’s not our fault the last thing her sister tried is the first thing the rest of us all thought of.
This isn’t to say our cartoon heroes need to be placed in mortal danger. Take, as an example, my still-favorite Miyazaki movie: Kiki’s Delivery Service. Much of Totoro‘s charm is still in evidence: the too-perfect setting, the brave child protagonist, the otherworldly imagery. The big difference is that conflict is also present. Kiki has flaws. She fails more often than she succeeds. She meets people who are at best unhelpful, or at worst who view her with contempt. At times, Kiki comes very close to despair. At no point in the movie do we have to fear for Kiki’s life or her well-being… that’s not what the story is about. But there are times where it looks like she won’t be able to reach her goals. Indeed, before the movie is over she has had to make several compromises. That’s part of growing up; that’s what the story is about.
I couldn’t tell you what Totoro‘s story is about, in similar terms. I like feel-good tales about charming little brats having adventures in Wonderland, but they are not my favorite tales. They slide off my brain in exactly the time it takes to consume them. I don’t take anything from them. Popcorn, you could say. I like it, but I wouldn’t make a meal of it.
In the meantime, I have the rest of the as-yet-unwatched Miyazaki films buried away in my Netflix backlog. Will the rest of them fare better against my jaded, cynical tastes? I can’t wait to find out.