Hayao Miyazaki didn't have a grand future in mind when he originally created Totoro, one of plush toys, hash-tags, and enduring cameo appearances. He didn't even really have a movie in his sights when he began the initial creative process: My Neighbor Totoro started out as a children's book, a straightforward departure for the filmmaker after Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky, designed as a love letter to his country and his past. The gradual impact it has had, though, since taking shape into an animated film under the Studi Ghibli banner, is immeasurable; while global audiences were aware of Japanese animation, this one broke those barriers open in delivering an endearing mythological creature easily seen as a manifestation of youthful, innocent imagination. It's the type of movie almost entirely devoid of villainy or suspense, driven by its own delightful focus on exploration, trust, and hope in ways only Miyazaki's watercolor-esque whimsy seems able to achieve.
The story itself is as uncomplicated as they come. In late-50s Japan, two sisters -- Satsuki and Mei -- move to a peaceful countryside home with their father, a university professor, which they've done to be closer to the hospital where their mother is being treated for an unspecified, long-lasting illness (though given the time period and Miyazaki's own hints, it's reasonable to assume that it's tuberculosis). Once they arrive at their new house, they start exploring its ramshackle cracks and crevices, only to discover that small black dust spirits, called "soot sprites" by their new nanny and next-door neighbor, occupy some of its darker spots. There's something unique about this house and its proximity to a giant nearby tree, and it's only once Mei explores the grounds alone that its big, fluffy secret emerges: that of Totoro, a rotund benevolent furball with wide eyes and a massive grin. As the family acclimates to their new surroundings and the situation with the mother, the "mystery" of Totoro's presence captures the girls' attention.
Unlike the grandness of Laputa in Castle in the Sky and the Toxic Jungle in Nausicaa, Miyazaki brings the artistry down to a personal level while depicting the Japanese countryside, conveying the reserved, natural beauty of tree tunnels and dusty wood-'n-tile bathrooms. In this realistic environment, his ability to create energetic characters becomes even more pronounced; Satsuki's lively confidence is enriched by her caring big-sister dependability, while Mei's headfirst bravery into the wooded areas is nothing short of charming. He's built this journey very much like a customary, harmless children's cartoon, with joy as the driving force and no threats to be seen, outside of a looming melancholy sensation about their mother's condition. Yet, there's subtlety and charm around every corner in the laughter, the sense of discovery, and the comfort of their new house -- the place where their ill mother will come as soon as she's ready, where they might coexist with little dust ghosts.
All this happens before we're even introduced to Totoro himself, an original creation of Miyazaki presented as a form of wilderness "spirit", and the moment he's revealed is an enchanting one where fear of a foreign beast surrenders to the appeal of a fluffy stomach and a sun-kissed afternoon. This occurs in an environment that allows the fantastical to delicately coexist with everyday activities, where gathering twigs for fire, waiting at a bus stop, and watching seeds sprout in a dirt bed are enlivened by brushes with a mystical flip-side. A scene involving Totoro, rain, and an umbrella makes me grin ear-to-ear without fail, no matter how many times I've seen it. Simple, whimsical delights are built around this rabbit-owl-raccoon hybrid, and the clever thing about My Neighbor Totoro is that the relationship between the girls and this feathery spirit may or may not be the product of their imaginations and dreams, something the story handles with a vibrant sense of humor and respect to the perspective of children.
When urgency does surface in the girls' world, Miyazaki allows those realms of reality and fantasy to intertwine in a expression of the family bond, suggesting that, hey, those comforting elements of the imagination aren't as unreal or immaterial as they might seem. The landscape he's created for the forest spirits and those who experience it isn't one of conflict, of fear and trepidation, but one of mere acclimation to tricky situations. The eerie, creaky darkness of their fixer-upper house is an opportunity for the girls to yell into the void and show that they're not scared, instead of generating fear of ghosts or sadness about their previous home, while Satsuki seeing Totoro at a bus stop as he awaits his "cat bus" in heavy rainfall is one that joyfully validates the flight of imagination that her young sister saw in her play-time earlier on. My Neighbor Totoro delightfully conveys the message that adjusting to situations isn't a scary thing and that everything's going to be alright, and it does so through a fanciful, endearing departure from Miyazaki's previous works that's enriched by a simple purpose and its side-stepping of easy drama.
Walt Disney Home Entertainment floats My Neighbor Totoro onto Blu-ray in the studio's now-customary standard two-disc package: Disc One is a plain blue-topped HD disc, and Disc Two is an older standard-definition disc taken from a previous set (it appears to be the presentation from Disney's 2010 double-dip, reviewed here by DVDTalk). A cardboard slipcase slipcase reuses the design from Disney's most recent repressing, with raised lettering for the title and a gold sheen on the spine to stay consistent with the other Ghibli Blu-ray releases.
Video and Audio:
We've come to expect a caliber of quality from Disney's Blu-ray treatment of classic Studio Ghibli works, as shown by their impressive presentations of Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky that, thankfully, stomped all over the studio's previous offerings. So it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that their 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment of My Neighbor Totoro continues that lineage by excelling far beyond that of its standard-definition counterpart, where the film almost appears as if it were drawn and printed yesterday. Expecting that quality doesn't stop it from being exciting eye-candy, though: the effervescent colors, the refined details, and the graceful movement between hand-drawn frames breathes life into Miyazaki's artwork not previously seen. The limitations of the print are merely things that keep it from looking absolutely pristine in comparison to modern animations, such as faint softness and a slight, very occasional jitter. However, the palette remains stable, contours of the hand-drawn lines are elegant, and there isn't a moment that doesn't appear rock-solid. Beautifully done.
A pair of two-channel Master Audio tracks coast Totoro along: the original Japanese language option, and the English dub that Disney recorded in 2006. There's a lot of front-loaded ambience to admire in both tracks that wrap those watching in an engaging low-impact design -- wind blowing, the pitter-patter of bare feet on wooden floors, and the droplets of rain -- which moves between channels in a way that elegantly preserves the charming, crisp attitude of the film's tone. Certain sound effects, like Totoro's yawns and yells, offer strong moments of lower-end stability and fullness, while the thump and crescendos in Joe Hisashi's score throttle the vivacious mood. The difference here, of course, is the shift between languages and their fidelity, and having listened to both tracks on this Blu-ray, they're both equally strong in their limited stereo dynamics. The purist in me appreciates the Japanese track's quality, but the Fanning sisters (Dakota and Elle) and their supporting crew deliver a surprisingly tolerable English dub. Optional English, English SDH and French subtitles are available, as well as a 2-channel French dub.
A note about the subtitles: the standard English subs are not dubtitles; however, the English SDH titles are. One example of the differences between the tracks comes in the name of the black dust spirits: they're called "dustbunnes" before Nanny corrects them in the standard track, while the SDH track repeats the dub by referring to them as "soot gremlins".
Those who passed on Disney's DVD re-release of My Neighbor Totoro a few years back will be pleased to hear that the batch of new extras from that presentation, many featuring Hayao Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki, composer Joe Hisaishi, have also been included here. That doesn't mean that there's a substantial amount to work with, though: most of the new features are fairly brief and interchange between Totoro-specific and about Ghibli in general, only touching on the subjects -- Creating My Neighbor Totoro (2:38, HD); Creating the Characters (4:24, HD); The Totoro Experience (2:00, HD); Producer's Perspective: Creating Ghibli (1:23, HD); Scoring Miyazaki (7:18, HD) -- on fairly straightforward levels. They will provide some interesting bits of information for fans, though, such as the story's origin as a children's book, the demand for plush Totoros after the film's first TV airing, and the marriage between visual images and music that Joe Hisaishi has grown so remarkable at achieving.
In addition, a series of other familiar extras have been tossed onto the disc from previous releases, including the feature-length Original Japanese Storyboards that plays with the Japanese language track; the sketches look great in HD. This release also carries over the lengthiest of the Totoro-centered featured, The Locations of Totoro (28:38, SD), a segment where actress Mayu Tsuruta travels across Japan to visit some of the film's reference points -- or, more accurately, how the landscape in the film reflects on scattered Japanese locations. Also, we've got the Behind the Microphone (5:39, SD 4x3) press-kit feature that tracks the process of recording the English-language voices through interviews, as well as the Original Japanese Trailer (1:58, SD).
Hayao Miyazaki broke away from the grand, fantastical worlds of his previous creations for My Neighbor Totoro, instead going for something straightforward, minimal in mythology, and focused on the intimacy of the Japanese countryside while depicting a family in a transition period. Studio Ghibli proves in this animated feature that clear-cut stories and idealistic looks at human drama can be quite poignant when crafted this gorgeously, coupled with a fluffy forest spirit that that proves to be a testament to the enduring nature of escapism and imagination. And, yes, Totoro himself is a brilliant and lovable creation, a wide-eyed, large-toothed, harmless creature who presents a delightful message about not fearing everything that is mysterious or unpredictable. Walt Disney Home Entertainment have presented Miyazaki's film in a beautiful, versatile audiovisual package for this Blu-ray, where the artistry looks stunning and the stable, clear English and Japanese audio tracks will be satisfying to everybody. Coupled that with a decent array of old special features and an enormous replay factor, and you've got an exceedingly Highly Recommended package that will be a no-brainer for fans.
Note: The photos in this review are taken from previous DVD presentations of My Neighbor Totoro, and do no reflect the Blu-ray disc reviewed here.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site