My Neighbor Totoro Review

After my review of Spirited Away back in 2017 (my most popular post to date, mind you), I immediately decided I wanted to review my second favorite Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbor Totoro. An animation studio that, to the extent of my knowledge, never made a bad film. As you can guess, this goal has been postponed, ignored, and procrastinated for a very long time. Finally, after over a year of slowly chipping away at this article, I feel I can competently and properly review this wonderful film.

My Neighbor Totoro follows two young girls named Satsuke and Mei, as they move to the rural countryside of Japan with their father. Together they settle into their home, awaiting their mother who’s ill at the hospital. Satsuke and Mei, full of curiosity, come across a group of good-natured spirits while exploring their new home. Most notable of these spirits is the lovable fan favorite Totoro, a snuggly and plush creature who leisurely roams the nearby forest.

My Neighbor Totoro is the kind of film that you could mute the dialogue and still understand everything occurring on-screen, while also having an enriching experience. The beautiful hand-drawn animation is abundant with warm, welcoming characters and relaxing watercolor skies, lulling the viewer into a sense of contentment. The magic of Ghibli’s animation maintains a well-deserved reputation for being immaculate, and it continues to delight me to this day.

On a purely storytelling level, Ghibli films often just “go with the flow”. There’s no predictable three act structure that audiences groan at because they know precisely what will happen next. We’re merely along for the ride, traveling through a myriad of dream-like sequences of awe-inspiring music and pleasant visuals.

This way of storytelling makes films like Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro so memorable. They stand out from the massive amounts of animated white noise that’s pumped out every year.

Years ago, the late film critic Roger Ebert noted how My Neighbor Totoro represents the perfect kind of world to live in. One without villains, conflict, or any sort of antagonist conceivable. Not only do I agree with this sentiment, I think it is key to what makes My Neighbor Totoro such a lovably relatable flick.

It’s an exploration into childlike wonder, taking you back to a simpler time of bliss. No need for bad guys in a peaceful reflection of childhood, only the curiosity and imagination you wish you still had.

My Neighbor Totoro is a family-fun masterpiece of the highest quality. There’s a reason Totoro remains so popular with audiences of all ages, garnering a cult following that only seems to get bigger as time wears on. And if there’s anything that time won’t wear on, it’s Totoro, which I believe will remain timeless and relevant for generations to come.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Mary and the Witch’s Flower Review

I’ve written in the past about my unrelenting love for Studio Ghibli and their timeless films, and I stand by my belief that they are the best animation company to have ever existed. And after director Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement in 2014, Studio Ghibli has since halted production of their wonderfully bizarre movies.

Enter Studio Ponoc, which was formed by several Studio Ghibli animators as well as the lead film producer for Ghibli, Yoshiaki Nishimura. Bearing the same signature animation as Ghibli, Studio Ponoc’s first feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower looked to be a sure-fire hit. And in some ways the film was, with stunning animation, fun characters, and the clever blending themes and ideas from other Ghibli films.

The film focuses on a young, accident-prone girl named Mary, who finds a strange “Fly-by-Night” flower and a broomstick in the forest. Together the flower and broomstick turn Mary into a powerful witch, and send her to a school in the clouds called Endor college. A magical college for witches, the school is run by Madame Mumblechook and the intelligent Doctor Dee. However, after Mumblechook discovers Mary is in possession of the flower, she concocts a plot that may put Mary and her friends lives in serious danger.

Many qualities of the plot and characters pay homage to previous Studio Ghibli films, all without feeling like too much of a retread. Peter reminded me of Kanta from My Neighbor Totoro, and Madame Mumblechook was in some ways like Yubaba from Spirited Away. Even common themes depicted in Ghibli’s work appeared here, like man’s futile attempts to take control over nature. If I had to describe it, I’d say Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a blend of Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and many other Ghibli products mixed into one, which I believe to be a clever first step for Studio Ponoc to make.

Good animation is pretty much an industry standard at this point, and anything below that now is shameful. Even with this, Studio Ponoc managed to impress me with its incredibly strong visuals. The watercolor landscapes and vibrantly drawn characters bring to life a world of pure two-dimensional joy. Films like this often leave me awestruck in the boundless amounts of visual creativity they produce. I’m always left wanting to see more of the world and its many inhabitants. And in the case of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I unfortunately felt this longing to see more to an incredibly high degree, as the film was frequently void of visual wonders.

I really wish Mary and the Witch’s Flower would’ve taken the initiative to push more imaginative boundaries. This is a clever story, and the characters and animation are most certainly there. It’s just that all these elements aren’t utilized to their fullest potential. Studio Ponoc gift wrapped themselves a wonderful world of magic and adventure, yet refuse to open it. When we should be diving head first into the rich environment of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, we’re stuck focusing on too much characterization. Not that these are poorly written or bad characters, it’s just that we’ve already seen them been done before by Studio Ghibli, and already know how everything is going to turn out.

Even with its numerous flaws, I enjoyed Mary and the Witch’s Flower and would give it a strong, sincere recommendation. A lack of willingness to go the extra mile (as well as starting off fairly boring) put Mary and the Witch’s Flower below the quality of film I was really hoping to see. The only truly breathtaking part was the quality of animation, which was charming from start to finish.

I wish the very best of Studio Ponoc in the future, and believe that they have the capacity to achieve greatness through their animation.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

 

Spirited Away Review

Having really enjoyed reviewing the film Howl’s Moving Castle, I have decided to review some other major Studio Ghibli titles. Therefore, I feel it would be proper for me to start with my most favorite of Ghibli’s films, Spirited Away.

Spirited Away is about a young girl named Chihiro, who is with her parents on their way to their new home. They all stumble upon an abandoned amusement park that, at night, magically comes to life with mythical creatures. And through an unfortunate turn of events, Chihiro’s parents are magically turned into giant pigs. The only way she can get them back is to take a job working at a bathhouse that serves these mythical creatures.

Spirited Away showcases the always amazing talents of Studio Ghibli and their ability to put even the slightest details into their animation. You could pause the film at any moment in time to analyze and admire every little component of the animation. Each and every image is awe-inspiring, and all together they create a visually gripping story.

Throughout this magical journey that the audience gets to experience, we meet a wide variety of imaginative creatures that have now become cultural icons of their own. The biggest is probably No-Face, a semi-transparent spirit that can absorb the personalities of others when he eats them. Not only are characters like No-Face interesting and complex, but they leave a lasting impression on the viewer. Even minor characters you don’t see for more than a few seconds I remember ever so vividly (like the giant yellow ducks with leaves on their heads).

I feel that Spirited Away takes a very relaxed and laid back tone to its storytelling. Even at its most intense or sad points, Spirited Away still manages to maintain a happy mood. It’s the kind of film that I can watch at any point in time and not have to be in any particular emotional state to view it.

The soundtrack of the film creates a fun and adventurous mood that draws the viewer into the magic. The music is very similar to Howl’s Moving Castle, both in sound and how they create a lighthearted mood. Spirited Away’s soundtrack is among my favorite soundtracks to any kids film and is worth checking out on its own.

All in all, Spirited Away remains one of my favorite animated movies. It has everything that a film should have and more. The characters are fantastic, the story odd and adventurous, and the animation is some of the best I have ever seen. If you have never gotten a chance to experience the magic of Spirited Away, by all means I implore you to see it immediately. Spirited Away affirms Studio Ghibli’s place as one of the greatest animation companies of all time and will continue to astonish audiences around the world for many years to come.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint