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Friday Family Movie Night: My Neighbor Totoro

The second step of my love affair with Hayao Miyazaki is what many describe as his best work, the 1993 My Neighbor Totoro. As with Ponyo, the movie explores -- no, celebrates -- what it is to believe in magic. And yet this is not Disney magic, with wands and tiaras and beautiful flowing-haired-but-nubile teen stars. This is a delightful, screaming, four-year-old magic, the incantation only gratitude and respect, the fairy dust soot and dirt and acorns.

My Neighbor Totoro
is the story of a family. Father, the eight- or nine-year-old Satsuke, and the three-year-old Mei move to the country, and slowly we discover that they have done so because their mother is very ill, and her hospital is nearby. From the opening scenes we discover that none of these people are made-for-TV; the moving truck is so overloaded that the girls must stay in the back, and their delight about everything is tempered, of course, by the idea that a policeman might see them and give their father a ticket. In an American movie, this would be a judgment; in Miyazaki, it is a celebration. The girls and their father exuberantly tumble and caper into their new home, which would in another context be a dump; here, it is a source of unending joy.

Everything about the father's relationship with the girls is so tender and reverent. When they say they have seen "little black things! Like bugs, but bigger!" he does not assume they were actually bugs. "Soot gremlins?" he asks. The next door neighbor, "Granny," tells the girls that she, too, saw soot sprites when she was a little girl -- enjoying the little Mei, whose hands and feet are somehow covered in soot and who runs right into her, screams and runs away. Everything that the adults suggest comes true, and only the girls can see it; the soot sprites move away when they see that the family is taking good care of the house.

In another scene, the father is bathing with the children, and this becomes natural and masculine; in still another, Father puts Mei on his towel-wrapped bike bar, with Satsuke standing behind him, as they ride to the hospital to visit mother.

The totoros are not encountered until later, and it is Mei who discovers them -- first a baby, then a small one, and chasing these two leads to the enormous totoro -- the titular neighbor. Totoro helps fearless Mei express her powerlessness over her mother's illness, and helps Satsuke believe that her contributions do make a difference -- and gives her someone to care for her when she is putting the weight of her little family on her own shoulders.

It is a beautiful movie, luminous and filled with heart and beauty. Everything is examined with a quiet, soft light; nothing is found wanting. Even when Satsuke lashes out in anger, it is not the sudden flame-and-apology that most children's movies do so pat, it is the complex simultaneous helpless rage and compassion that more true characters feel.

We got this movie on a Monday, and watched it that night, as we had missed Friday movie night the weekend prior. By Thursday, we had watched it five times; each time, it only got better. I love this movie; and so do we all.


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This is hands down my children's favorite movie. They have watched it so many times I know it by heart. We have the older dubbed version but I hear they redid it. Whenever my children had a bad, sick, anxious, disappointing, scary day they'd ask to watch Totoro. They are almost grown now but still love the movie and the lessons about family and love still resonate and when they see a really magnificent tree they still comment that Totoro might live there. It is such a beautiful, positive, life affirming film.

Best kids movie ever.

Yes, yes, yes! I love especially that it is *not* a love story formula with children (creepily) as lovers. It is something entirely different, and fanciful, and magical. I watch it when I'm having a bad day. Can't wait until the kids are old enough to share it.

It always makes me happy when other families discover My Neighbor Totoro. It is such a wonderful movie in so many ways. Most important to me, the girls (Mei and Satsuke) are such wonderful role models who are adored for their character, rather than their beauty. In fact, beauty is never mentioned. And Miyazaki adds such wonderful "little girl" characteristics to Mei that are exactly right for her age - she goes down the stairs leading with the same foot, she somersaults and lands flat on her back, etc.

My daughter also looks at big trees and wonders if Totoros live there. So glad you liked it, Sarah (I knew you would!!).

I just realized I used the word 'wonderful' three times in that comment. I guess you get my drift... ;-)

I'm almost 21, and I grew up on My Neighbor Totoro. It will always be one of my favorite movies ever, and you can believe that when I have my own family, my children will be raised on it. Every time I watch this movie, it brings back my childhood in a powerful way. My father, older sister, and I used to watch it all the time. I'm so glad that other families are discovering the joy and magic that is Totoro :D It's really one of the most enchanting children's movies of all time, and Miyazaki does an amazing job of bringing childhood to life in his movies. I hope everyone spreads this movie to their friends!

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