A Ghost in the Forest, a Mom in the Hospital
On a recent dreary night at home, land-locked by a maelstrom that settled over Shreveport for a few weeks, I took off my pirate gear and watched Hayao Mayazaki/Studio Ghibli's children's film, My Neighor Totoro. When it comes to Mayazaki, I'm no lightweight; Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Nausicaa rank among my favorite animated films. The only Mayazaki film I didn't enjoy was Porco Rosso. I felt prepared to enjoy whatever Totoro would turn out to be. But what it ended up being really knocked the wind out of me. One part classic Mayazaki - complete with spirits who live in the forest, magical creatures that only appear before children, and nature as an object of worship - and one part French New Wave, the movie has a kind of heady, semi-stoned pace that allows for two minute-long extended takes of tadpoles swimming, a snail crawling along a flower's pistil, or a family lying in the shade of a camphor tree. The gorgeous, hand-drawn animation serves well to capture the wind blowing across a field, or the heavy boughs of a tree rising and falling in the breeze.
The two lead characters of the film are a pair of sisters who have moved into the country to a new house, in order to be near the hospital where their mother is recovering from what father calls "a cold," but the viewer can assume must be TB. The girls spend their days exploring the woods, playing in streams, and pondering when their mother may return from the hospital. Bad news comes - mom isn't coming home as soon as was expected. Mei, the youngest daughter, hides from this fact by going deeper into the forest, where she encounters the forest's king, a massive, gerbil-like spirit she calls "Totoro," who becomes her newest neighbor and friend.
That's pretty much the driving plot of the film, but by 25 minutes into it, I could easily have watched Totoro and the two sisters plant seeds and play all day. Roger Ebert called the film "one of the most beloved children's films of all time." I f I had kids, I'd share this wonderful movie with them. The DVD comes with a soundtrack option which allows you to hear the film in English, French, or Japanese, so kids won't be frightened off by the subtitles. A warm, uplifting little film about a family's adjustment to life in the country and life without a mother, it has its sad moments, but is ultimately just an incredible film about family, nature, and imagination.
Sorry for the lack of eloquence or critique in this review - I really just wanted to gush about it! I plan to see Pedro Almodovar's Volver tomorrow night (I already have my tickets!), and promise a more insightful review of that film, which is my #1 most anticipated release from 2006.