March 7, 1996 [My Neighbor Totoro]

I cringe as I write, “My Neighbor Totoro is magical”—but here the cliche works: the movie conjures, performs a number of satisfying tricks. And the first of these is to place the mother in danger without alarm--away at the hospital, an undisclosed illness creating the need for the father and children to move to farmlands--and woodlands, a beautiful harmony of trim fields and sprawling wilderness.  The mother herself, we can tell, is in no real distress: She is quiet, perhaps even a little weak, but still kind and beautiful; illness has not made her sharp or haggard.  And the movie is not thoughtless in setting her aside, but loving toward her, inviting the children to miss her with optimistic melancholy.

This first magic trick gets the children into Totoro’s neighborhood--the big stuffed animal, a thousand times more wonderful to discover than hordes of Hasbro-ready Ewoks or numbing Smurfs, and infinitely more exotic--although they snooze and snore like wind-tunnel pugs, their bland, watching faces seeming to take in the children as though those small things are barely there--as though it is the children who are the half-hidden sprites, the fleeting figures at the periphery.

That is the second magic trick: to allow children themselves to be magicians, like Alice who could shrink and grow.  But these Japanese girls don’t need to contort themselves. Their curiosity is the spell that sends them to the other side, and their open hearts are rewarded with the third magic trick: the love of the Totoros themselves, more than happy to let the girls snuggle and bounce on their deep-pile tummies, to ride in the catbus--a little scary, as so much good magic is, but just enough to make the stomach flutter a little in anticipation of the next little plunge--not too steep, not menacing at all.  More like Alice again, stepping through the looking-glass without effort.

They call the director, Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese Disney.  But his touch seems more fatherly, more understanding of children, like Chaplin--or, once more, Carroll.  In the end, My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t play by Disney’s rules, but invents its own mythology of contact and acceptance, of surrender to both the supernatural and the natural, the trees and tunnels of undergrowth as magical as the big fluffy monsters--and of course they are: Ask any child where she would like to go, and stay.  She may not be able to express it clearly until you take her to see this movie--where she’ll point up at the screen and make the dust bunnies scatter as she shouts, There! At the edge of that field where the nice grandma gathers vegetables, where the giant tree shades endless paths where small things walk just ahead and look over their shoulders to make sure I’m following.


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