My Neighbor Totoro

Year: 1988
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki

Studio Ghibli's one misstep – Tales From Earthsea – is enough to make me hesitant whenever I watch one of their films, but I had nothing to worry about here. My Neighbour Totoro is as whimsical, magical and beautiful as any of their more recent movies and if you've ever wondered about the fat rabbit-like creature that gives the company its logo, Totoro is it.

In what appears to be a proto-50s or 60s, sisters Satsuki and Mei and their kindly university professor Dad move to a rural township while their sick mother convalesces in hospital.

There are nooks and crannies to explore all over the house and surrounding forest while they get to know their kindly neighbours, but it's the supernatural creatures that catch tiny Mei's eye.

The girls plunge into the forest where they meet three creatures who look similar but are vastly different sizes ranging from a smurf to a small elephant – mammalian creature with bunny ears, barrel-shaped bodies and a lazy, peaceful outlook. The creatures don't talk but they seem to be nature guardians of some sort – one night after planting seeds the girls see the trio dancing around the patch of ground to encourage the seeds to grow to a tree of unimaginable size.

There are so many aspects you just don't see in movies and which make you realise what a narrow view of the world American movies have. The girls' father is busy but devoted to them, not the cold, absent fathers that populate American films. Their mother is ailing, not the infallible, all-nurturing force of home and hearth. Most importantly, the heroes of the story not only aren't adventurous boys, the film doesn't make a big deal out of the fact. If an American movie has a female hero it wears the pride at doing so on its sleeve clumsily and audiences are treated to an unwitting and cack-handed lecture about equality.

The animation – hand drawn in the pre CGI era, is full of warmth and beauty. There's more life in little Mei than most human actors around and you'll just fall in love with both sisters. Tiny humanising details live action movies scrimp on – like Satsuki standing on tiptoes on a box to talk to her father on the phone at a neighbour's house – can be found in every scene.

The visuals as well as the story are full of Ghibli's signature flights of imagination, like the cat-bus. And in this case, since the subplot of the sick mother is autobiographical to Hayao Miyazaki, it's ironically anchored in a very real world. As beautiful as it is brilliant.

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