Parents: If you’re looking for a movie to watch with the kids, and you’re tired of Disney and the assorted non-Disney Disney clones that clog the video store shelves, here’s a movie to find: My Neighbor Totoro. I watched this last night with my own daughter (she’s two-and-a-half) and it met with her sign of approval: she demanded to watch it again today. This anime production is just wonderful. The story of a father and his two young daughters who move to a country house near some woods (the mother is in the hospital with an illness that is never disclosed) is told in wonderful, real touches. The film treats its characters with respect, children and adult alike; no one ever acts mean or stupid merely to advance the plot — in fact, no one in the film is ever really mean or stupid at all. It is also loaded with wonderful touches. At one point, the girls are waiting out a rainstorm by huddling under a Shinto shrine when the boy next door — whose only expression seems to be the faces he makes at the older of the two sisters — comes by. He gives the girls his umbrella, allowing them to get home dry, and walks off through the rain back to his own house. Moments later we see him being yelled at by his mother for losing another umbrella, but like any boy his age he can’t take the easy way out and tell his mother what he did with it, so he tells her he lost it and accepts the punishment. Ten-year-old boys really do act like that.
Of course, the film involves magical beings who live in the nearby woods; these beings are presented matter-of-factly, as another part of the landscape; they are neither horrors or mysteries that become the entire focus of the film. The Totoro is a wonderfully realized being, and the cat-bus has to be seen to be believed. The animation may seem rough to people accustomed to Disney smoothness, but the details of each frame are perfect and true. The music, by Joe Hisaishi, is by turns movingly beautiful and delightfully childlike. This is a movie that finds wonder in the sound made by rain dropping on an umbrella. If you know anyone who doesn’t love My Neighbor Totoro, take their pulse or turn them toward the light.