In a movie world in which it seems like everything we see will be in 3-D (and I'm not exaggerating one bit there), there are really very few better reminders of how beautiful old-fashioned storytelling can be than in the still extremely charming films of Hayao Miyazaki.
Out now on DVD from Disney and Studio Ghibli are special editions of "Kiki's Delivery Service," "Castle in the Sky" and "My Neighbor Totoro." "Totoro," more than any Miyazaki movie, just perfectly captures his ability to view the world through the eyes of mischievous children, and in Totoro himself gave the studio its signature mascot.
Unlike most of Miyazaki's movies, "Totoro" has a definite time and place, rural Japan in the 1950s, and he and his animators turn the landscape of rice patty fields and wooded areas into an enchanting place to visit.
As the movie opens, Satsuki and her 4-year-old sister Mei, voiced with wide-eyed enthusiasm by Dakota and Elle Fanning in the Western version (yes, really), arrive with their father at their new home in the countryside, and of course immediately find it to be full of wonders, including the susuwatsari, soot sprites that disappear once the girls become comfortable in their new surroundings.
And this odd living arrangement (mom, it turns out, is recovering in a hospital from a long-term illness) just about perfectly captures how Miyazaki views the role of adults and children in the world. Dad, voiced by Tim Daly, is benevolent but aloof, happy to keep his nose buried in books while his daughters explore the world around them. It can be troubling if you think about it too much, and even more so in "Ponyo," but don't ... just let the charms of "Totoro" unfold around you as they do for young Mei.
After spying a pint-size, semi-translucent version of Totoro (there are, since Miyazaki is ever the prankster, three of them), Mei follows it through a thicket of trees and down a hole where she finally encounters the giant version of Totoro, who most closely resembles a big cat, but really just looks so odd that he can be just about anything you want him to be. There's a genuine goofy charm to their first encounter, as Mei lays on the stomach of a sleeping Totoro and tries to figure out just what in the world she's encountered.
I don't want to give away too much for anyone who's never seen this or just wants to rediscover the movie again, but from there it turns into one of Miyazaki's trippiest rides, and it's a thoroughly fun one to take. On the way we get a signature moment of Miyazaki wit when Totoro first reveals himself to Satsuki as she and Mei are waiting in the rain for their father at a bus stop, and promptly jumps up to drench her with water. Things get crazier and crazier, though at a natural pace, until a giant cat bus (you really have to see it to believe it) arrives to reunite the girls with their mother.
I think Miyazaki's best movies, "Totoro," "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Ponyo" (though I have a real soft spot for "Porco Rosso" too), are the ones he has clearly made for kids. He's just a big kid himself, and he delights in creating worlds that let children explore everything around them and discover all the dangers and delights.
And, whether you've never seen "My Neighbor Totoro" or simply want to reunite with a movie I'm sure many of you loved when it first came out in 1993 (in the U.S.A., five years after its Japanese release), this "special edition" is one that truly earns that designation.
The real treasure here are the original Japanese storyboards, which let you watch the movie as a work in progress, with Miyazaki's raw drawings accompanied by the Western voice track. For animation lovers, this really is an indispensable treasure.
And in the World of Ghibli, there are a series of featurettes, the best of which feature Miyazaki himself talking about what he has created with "Totoro." It's here that you see both Miyazaki's clear love of Japan and his impish spirit emerge. And hearing producer Toshio Suzuki explain how Totoro himself is and isn't like "ET" is just a delight. One word of caution - unless you're simply in need of a sleeping aid, avoid at all costs the "The Locations of Totoro" featurette, which is simply a half hour of some Japanese actress walking through the Japanese countryside and saying things like "this farmhouse easily could have fit in 'Totoro'." Yes, really, and it's just as boring as it sounds here. Other than that, however, the extras here are well worth an hour or so to delve into the weird and often wonderful world of Studio Ghibli.
Whether you're discovering it for the first time or, like me, revisiting an old favorite, "My Neighbor Totoro" has a timeless charm that will never grow old, and is well worth watching again on this special edition release.