The thrill of My Neighbor Totoro begins long before the film’s iconic giant bear-owl spirit takes to the skies on a spinning top. In the film’s opening minutes, writer-director Hayao Miyazaki introduces two young girls, 11-year-old Satsuki and 4-year-old Mei, as they race around and wiggle through the hidden spaces of their new country home. They shriek with glee when they discover “secret stairs,” where a family of soot spirits scurry about. The encounter puts smiles on their faces and charcoal dust on their hands.
As an adult, it’s a transportive. For my 2-year-old, who I’ve now seen the film with at least 50 times by her demand, the sequence is a moment of behavioral reassurance. Mei is wild. Mei is compassionate. Mei feels a thousand thoughts rush through her mind as she dips a hand into a puddle full of tadpoles. Mei weeps when things hurt. Mei dreams. In thousands of scanned pencil sketches and ink blots, Miyazaki rendered an actual little kid, imperfect and thriving. The film, made in 1988 and set in post-war Japan, clicks for my daughter in the year 2020, even if she can’t articulate the connection. What she can do is bolt up our stairs in search of her own “secret stairs,” scribble an orange line on a piece of paper and call it the “Catbus,” and comb through tall grass to find acorns for the tiny totoros who apparently lurk in our backyard.
Only a handful of live-action films have dealt with the raw emotions of preschoolers. (Which makes sense, because preschoolers are terrible at taking direction.) But even though animation comes with limitless possibilities, it has rarely filled in the gap. Despite the target audience, Disney Animation, DreamWorks, Illumination, Pixar, and the other American majors whisk young audiences along on teenage coming-of-age quests, or cartoon romps with immature avatars. The Minions are childlike. Nemo is elementary age, but also a fish. Frozen might be played and replayed ad nauseam in every house containing a 6-or-under, but Elsa and Anna are grown women and potential role models.
Mei, in stark contrast to every animated character that came before and after her, looks like a kid, acts like a kid, and emotes like a kid. It’s absolute realism without photorealism, which in the three decades since My Neighbor Totoro, has become the language of Western animated films that hope to put kids on the fast track to adulthood.
By the mid-2000s, after the repeated box-office failure of 2D animated films like Disney’s Treasure Planet and Brother Bear, along with Dreamworks’ own misfires The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, the pencil points of American hand-drawn animation were dulled down to a nub. In hopes of financial success, the industry followed Pixar’s CG, prompting Disney to lay off most of its 2D animators after 2004’s disastrous Home on the Range. But in 2006, after becoming chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar and Disneytoon Studios, John Lasseter (a devoted Studio Ghibli fan) rehired many of those artists. At the time, he scorned the company’s previous logic. “The general consensus was that audiences did not want to watch hand-drawn animated films, which is of course completely ridiculous.”
While the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog gave those animators one more chance to illustrate in the traditional Disney style, further layoffs eventually dissolved the company’s 2D animation team. On Disney’s 2014 film Big Hero 6, veteran animators like Mark Henn, who might once have illustrated the main characters’ most dramatic moments provided caricatured skeletons over which 3D artists could build bubbly characters. When it came time to mimic the animated sections of Mary Poppins for the 2018 sequel Mary Poppins Returns, Disney had so few 2D animators in house that it outsourced the work to another company.
Could Disney ever return to 2D animation? During the leadup to Big Hero 6, I asked producer Roy Conli my eternal question, and got a routine answer: Maybe, if the right project came along. But Disney Animation’s story of high-flying adventure and a huggable robot named Baymax was not that movie. Few would be, as the stories Disney was looking to tell required computer graphics.
“I think peril in 3D is more easily achievable than in 2D,” Conli said at the time. “I feel CG, because of its dimensionality, seduces an audience member into something deeper.”
In 2006, Disney’s prevailing notion was that audiences didn’t want to watch hand-drawn animated films. In the late 2010s, the idea was more that 2D was too limiting for a modern audience weaned on action movies. Kids and their parents need superpowered heroines or high-speed chases featuring anthropomorphic protagonists. They needed peril. In theory.
Miyazaki is familiar with that demand of “peril.” He first imagined My Neighbor Totoro in the 1970s as a picture book. As the animator puts it in a DVD feature on the making of the film, “a story without a hero, or a girl with superpowers, and the ordinary Japanese scenery as a backdrop, was not considered entertaining enough.” Fifteen years went by before Miyazaki began actual work on the film with Studio Ghibli, and in that time, he rediscovered the beauty of Japan, and decided he “wanted children to play outside.” His independently owned studio granted him the permission to not be entertaining enough.
When Miyazaki picks up with Satsuki and Mei, they’re ready to explore and escape. In a nod to the director’s own childhood, their mother is committed to a hospital bed, fighting what seems like a losing battle against a long-term illness. Their father drowns in work, leaving them to fend for themselves in the daylight hours. The sisters find solace in the natural world around them, and find a guiding light in the creature they come to know as Totoro.
Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s meticulous process for creating animation is well documented. Hundreds of storyboards become hundreds of hand-drawn sketches become hundreds of hand-drawn animation frames, which then become hundreds of computer-scanned animation frames. Then those are turned into hundreds of revised-by-hand animation frames, which become hundreds of painted animation frames. And the final result is a few seconds of animation. But the process is only noticeable in My Neighbor Totoro if you’re looking for traces of it.
The cartooning of Mei is a prime example: whether rousing her dad in the early morning or poking a sleeping Totoro from hibernation, the girl’s expressions move at flipbook simplicity and speed. There are just the right amount of lines on her face to know how she feels, yet rarely what she thinks, as her mind and eyes are always processing what’s around her.
And there’s a lot around her: Early on in the film, butterflies flutter through thickets as the girl chases a pair of translucent totoros into the forest. She follows them all the way down a tunnel with a squeeee, eventually faceplanting into the belly of the fluffy beast. There’s no hesitation; when Totoro rolls over to expose his plush belly, she cozies into a patch of his fur, bops his nose, and roars back when he opens his bellowing mouth. The limited frames — drawn as just eight cels across 24 frames per second — give Mei the energy of a person unsure of her physical self, but gung-ho to push it to the limits. Miyazaki’s attention to performance detail gives each interaction a feeling of familiarity that’s almost like déjà vu.
There’s no demonic force cracking open the planet in My Neighbor Totoro, but Satsuki and Mei’s world feels at stake as they wait for their family to reunite. Miyazaki illustrates the anxiety in gut-wrenching ways, with calls from the hospital sending the sisters into a downward spiral, and literal waiting games. Halfway through the film, the pair stand in the summer rain hoping to catch their father at the bus stop after his long day at the university. But the bus passes, and they’re alone once again, prompting sleepy Mei to crawl up on her older sister’s back to fall asleep. Satsuki, hunched over and balancing an umbrella on her shoulder, holds her position, knowing her father must be right around the corner. Totoro shows up just in time — not to save the day, but to borrow an umbrella, catch the Catbus, and give Satsuki a reason to smile. Every tiny gesture in the scene is magical as the next.
Totoro comes out of the shadows to help Satsuki and Mei realize the limitless possibilities of their own imagination, and in turn, Miyazaki constructs setpieces that value intimate triumph over spectacle. The sisters squat and stretch and squat and stretch in the night to magically grow enormous camphor trees in their backyard. They sail toward the moon atop Totoro, Miyazaki centered at the children’s level, adding a slight rumble to the camera as the wind blows through each bit of the beast’s hand-drawn fluff. The “limits” of 2D bring the movie closer to Miyazaki’s original picturebook vision; instead of zipping through dimensionalized spaces, each cut feels like flipping from illustration to illustration, like Disney’s own The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh without the literal page turns.
My Neighbor Totoro has a moment of peril: In the third act, Mei ventures off across the rice paddies to visit her mother at the hospital. When she and Satsuki both recognize that they’re out of their depth, Miyazaki pulls back to take in the anxiety-inducing expanse of this natural world. It’s scary, and a little intense, but always with its feet on the ground of reality — even when the Catbus shows up to lend ten paws. The concentration on character faces during a tick-tock search for Mei goes back to one of Miyazaki’s other tenets of animation. “If the world depicted is a lie, the trick is to make it seem as real as possible,” the director writes in his essay collection Starting Points. “Stated another way, the animator must fabricate a lie that seems so real, viewers will think the world depicted might possibly exist.”
The chasm between Miyazaki’s hand-drawn animation and the modern run of 3D-animated movies, ones that supposedly connect deeper with today’s audiences through peril, is the fabrication of the lie. My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t strive to look “real,” but the animator and his team do everything in their capacity to reflect recognizable movement and reactions. A 10-foot bear-owl spirit who flies on a spinning top makes sense as long as Satsuki and Mei feel its presence. It’s the difference between the bike chase in E.T., where Spielberg convinced that danger could arrive on the doorstep of the suburbs, and the prismatic bombardment of Ready Player One, when CG untethered the director from any sense of humanity.
There are beautiful 3D-animated films that could only be 3D-animated films: the How to Train Your Dragon and Toy Story films simulate reality in impossible ways, while Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Kung Fu Panda 2 push cartooning to lightspeed. But the idea that each technological advancement raises and locks in the bar for how modern audiences can be dazzled is a misconception disputed by a film like My Neighbor Totoro. There should be room for Frozen 3 and films drawn to reflect the picturebook perspectives of young people.
In his proposal for My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki wrote that there were three parts of nature driving him to make the film: “What we have forgotten,” “What we don’t notice,” “What we are convinced we have lost.” In a mass market of animation, the observations take on new meaning. Hand-drawn, 2D animation is not a medium we should lament and let go of. We should rediscover it and offer it to the next generation, in hopes that they’ll see something deeper than we can possibly understand.
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