My Neighbor Totoro ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

My Neighbor Totoro opens with a doting, bookish father transplanting himself and his two adorable girls, roly-poly Mei (the curious, courageous) and svelte Satsuki (the conscientious and dutiful), to a verdant farming village. They are moving to bring the family nearer to their mother, who is bedridden in a neighboring hospice gracefully enduring an unnamed malady.

The house they move into has been shut tight against the elements. A traditional Japanese dwelling with sliding panel walls and doors, they playfully (and metaphorically) proceed to open it up to air it out. In the process, their father endearingly teases them about the presence of woods spirits. Suggestions that root in the girls bubbly imaginations; gradually they begin to perceive spirits in what had been a purely material world. (Perceptions familiar to any parent of pre-pubescent children who's taken a moment to eavesdrop on their adventures.)

Even though he is too often preoccupied with work, the father is as attuned to the sensitivities of his girls as he is to the natural order of things, including the spiritual. There are no slapstick misunderstandings between children and grownups here.

Like most animated films Totoro defies the predictable logic and physics of reality, but animation impressario Hayao Miyazaki further aims to avoid the bipolar pendulum swings between action and exposition that automate so many animated films.

The girls spend much of their time romping together in lush fields and forests under puffy clouds and starry skies-- brilliantly orchestrated by art director Kazuo Oga. As the eldest, a mature Satsuki assumes some of the traditional responsibilities of a mother: she quietly cooks, cleans and worries. In a nod to budding adolescence, she demurely exchanges blushing gestures with a neighbor. Through the providence of infantile curiosity, Mei explores the environs discovering tadpoles, frogs, butterflies and, ultimately, wood spirits, who nap, avoid humans, and conjure magic. Uttering squeaks, grunts and growls, they speak the language of animals: meanings and intentions are grasped through action without exposition-- wonder of wonders in a cartoon.

Through the course of the film, when the girls (especially Mei, the youngest) are excited or distressed something magical and dreamlike usually happens. The meet cute between plucky Mei and soporific Totoro, who combines the best elements of a grizzly bunny and a stuffed animal, is breathtaking. The incantatory dancing of spirits spurs the overnight growth of saplings into a centuries old tree. Mounting a whirling top, as if it were a broomstick, they soar on the currents of a midsummer nights.

But there is also magic conjured by simple, everyday gestures between ordinary people. Early on, to ward off spooks in their new home, father summons the most effective magic of all: laughter. Throughout, ordinary umbrellas become catalysts for magically transforming bashful encounters into enriched friendships.

Through the course of things a plot does emerge. Mei gets lost attempting a headstrong, lonesome cross country trek to visit her mother, who's condition may have taken a turn for the worse. Alluding to Cinderella, her shoe is found by a villager, but she is not. It is a quietly mortifying discovery.

As they encounter the spiritual-- the abundance of nature, encounters with fantastic creatures, the mortality of a loved one -- Miyazaki layers these explorations with mystery and apprehension, gradually exposing them as experiences of exultation and wonder rather than fear and trepidation.

If you prefer your animated tales in which heroes use their masculine wiles to rescue dowager princesses besieged by monsters trapped in aristotelean story arcs all designed to transform damsels into housewives, brace yourself for quieter more sublime wonders.

In a preamble on the DVD release Pixar honcho John Lassetar pays homage to Totoro, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. One wishes he would use his influence to adapt more of Miyazaki's formula defying conventions, especially pertaining to heroines.

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