My Neighbor Totoro is nothing more or less than a stroll through the woods on a sunny day. Especially if you are at that age where everything is new and fascinating and the cynicism of -- at least in my case -- early adolescence has not yet bloomed. It has little that one could call "plot", but this implies nothing about how enrapturing a movie it is.
The movie is about a father, Mr. Kusakabe (voiced by Tim Daly), and his two daughters, Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) who is ten or eleven, and Mei (Elle Fanning), about five, who move to a new farming village. The girls' mother has been hospitalized for unspecified reasons. So much about the tone and the artistry of the film can be garnered in its first sequence.
We see the Kusakabes in a truck, driving through fields, and when the family arrives, Mei and Satsuki run laughing through their yard and the surrounding forest, chasing each other through the new house. They explore a stream which, in a very Miyazaki touch, is gorgeously drawn, with attention both to the detail of the mud and rocks as well the bottle that someone has unkindly thrown into it.
Upon entering the bathhouse, though, Mei and Satsuki see it covered in little black balls (familiar to anyone who has seen Spirited Away) that scurry away when they open the doors, like otherworldly roaches. As with all good magic realism, the characters accept these soot spirits as perfectly normal, though Mei and Satsuki are curious about them. Eventually, their curiosity, especially the younger Mei's, lead them to a giant camphor tree which canopies a neighboring forest. It is there that we meet Totoro, a giant forest spirit with long, pointed ears that walks on its hind legs.
Throughout the film, we are treated to other sights that evoke everything from fairy tales to Dr. Seuss (the cat-bus, in particular, would have fit perfectly in the background of any of Mr. Geisel's work). If it were nothing more than its visuals, the film would be stunning but incomplete, but Miyazaki is far too accomplished an artist here for that to happen.
Consider Mei's meeting with Totoro -- the six-year-old finds her way into his clearing while he's sleeping and, after determining his name, curls up and falls asleep on him. Despite his size and the fact that we do, occasionally, see Mei from the point of view of Totoro's mouth, there is no menace in it, just wonderment.
Which is not to say that the film has no suspense or tension. Miyazaki uses Spielbergian techniques to create moments of forboding -- watching Satsuki fight a wind which is waving the grass around her is as effective as seeing the ripples in the glass of water in Jurassic Park. But Miyazaki's motives are of a different, more emotional, ilk. When, late in the movie, Mei gets lost in a maze of farmhouses and fields, the payoff is not a monster attack, but an expression of all the fears of two young girls worried about their sick mother.
The DVD extras are neither overly impressive nor extensive. The first disc contains a featurette called "Behind the Microphone", about the voice actors (including the always creepy Dakota Fanning and her sister). Though short, it's good to see, if only for its emphasis on the idea that voice acting is, in its own right, acting -- and, it should be noted, I felt the voice acting in this movie was strong, except for Tim Daly's affectless delivery. In addition, it contains the whimsical opening and closing sequences without the credits text; and the theatrical trailer, the ultimate in cheapo extras.
The second disc contains the Japanese storyboards, which lets you see the whole film in its storyboard form as the English soundtrack plays to give context to the static images. I enjoy delving into how films are made, but having the entire set of storyboards seems like it would appeal more to filmmakers than the average viewer.
Even for the more cinematically-minded, without any further explanation or context, the storyboards don't even elucidate the process of creating the film -- see The Lord of the Rings DVDs for how extras can use storyboards well.
My Neighbor Totoro is a film which builds, with patience, a quiet place of calm and connection. Though its focus is on the children, it is far from belonging to the ghetto of ADD-afflicted "children's movies." Though the extras are weak, the movie itself is worth it.
The Movie: 9 out of 10
DVD Extras: 3 out of 10