Time Out's 50 greatest animated films: part 6

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In celebration of the release of both Pixar's 'Up' and Wes Anderson's beautiful stop-motion rendering of Roald Dahl's 'Fantastic Mr Fox', Time Out ushers in the help of master animator Terry Gilliam – whose own partially animated 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' opens in cinemas this month – to run down 50 of the greatest animated features of all time

1. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
A hushed modern masterpiece.
If, hypothetically speaking, the late Yazujiro Ozu were ever inclined to experiment with the animated medium, one feels that Miyazaki's timeless hymn to the innocence of childhood, ‘My Neighbour Totoro', is the type of film he'd have created. It's a work that provides heart-rending and miraculously acute insight into the subtle, silent psychological interactions of a family on the precipice of tragedy and it's a story told through the curious eyes (and minds) of excitable pre-teen sisters, Satsuki and Mei.Like much of Ozu's oeuvre (specifically films like 1932's ‘I Was Born, But... ' and 1953's ‘Tokyo Story'), it's a film which recognises that real life does not consist of neat dramatic arcs, and in telling its miniature tale of how Satsuki and Mei deal with relocating to the countryside to be near their mother (who is bedridden in a nearby hospital), it never exploits the situation in search of cheap pathos or undue narrative contrivance. Tragedy? Death? Ozu? Yes, it's a film of profoundly serious intention, but the masterly, feather-light fashion in which the story is unravelled and the delightfully constructive and level-headed conclusions it draws over a faultless 83 minutes will leave you with a beaming smile and, in all probability, a tear of exasperated joy.

totoro.jpg

Already an institution in its native Japan and a surefire favourite of anyone faintly familiar with the Ghibli oeuvre, there was a chance in the mid-'80s when it was doubtful that ‘Totoro' was ever going to see the light of day. At the time, Studio Ghibli was not financially self-sufficient, and thus had to convince independent backers that their upcoming projects were worthy of bankrolling. So when Miyazaki originally proposed the outline for a film about two small girls retreating into their imaginations to come to terms with the responsibilities of the real world, the money men (perhaps understandably) kept their wallets tightly shut. It was only when the studio agreed to simultaneously make ‘Grave of the Fireflies' (see number 13), directed by Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, that funds were eventually released and Miyazaki was able to start work on this deeply idiosyncratic and personal project.

Effortlessly fusing the delicately forged imagined kingdoms of Lewis Carroll with the lackadaisical whimsy of AA Milne, the eponymous Totoro is revealed as a giant, waddling ball of fur who charmingly ushers the girls through their period of grief. The minimalism of Totoro's character represents a seam of restraint and sensitivity which runs though all aspects of the film: Instead of using animation to merely recreate the imagination (and unleash a colourful panoply of garish monsters), ‘Totoro' is a film about imagination, one which feels uniquely attuned to the type of creatures that girls of such a young age would really dream up – the Soot Spirits are little black balls, their mode of transport is a contraption which is half bus, half cat. Indeed, Miyazaki is just as enthralled by real creatures – such as tadpoles – as he is in the fantastical beasts of the forest.

my neighbor totoro 2.jpg

Though told predominantly from the perspective of children, the film also offers sagely musings on the subconscious ways in which adults attempt to withdraw their children from the realities of death. There's something curious about the girls' protective father as you feel that his eerily tactile mode of parenting masks a desperate ploy to make them forget about their mother's problems. Yet, slowly they become ever more alert to the potential gravity of the situation which culminates in one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes where Mei runs off in an effort to present her mother with an ear of corn in order speed up her recovery.

As usual with Ghibli's output, the story is brought to life with exquisite hand-drawn visuals that exude the artisanal lustre of classic Disney while being totally fresh, unique and engaging in their own right. There isn't a single inch of a single frame where you feel an effort hasn't been made to pull you into this world and to place you next to these characters. The lush backdrops of rural Japan – ponds, fields and woodland clearings – recall the soothing landscapes painted by Monet, while the uncomplicated designs of the monsters and humans strive (and largely achieve) to make the story and the feelings as rich and relatable as possible.

But I'm only piercing the surface of what ‘Totoro' is really ‘about', as among all of the above it provides an authentic portrait of burgeoning teenage love, a investigation into the mechanics of making new friends and a urgent call for us to safeguard the natural world. Ultimately, though, it's a film which says that all you need to be happy is love and imagination. How life affirming is that? DJ
Watch the US trailer here

Read the Time Out review of '
My Neighbour Totoro'

Explore the list: | 50-41 | 40-31 | 30-21 | 20-11 | 10-2 |

Author: Derek Adams, Dave Calhoun, Adam Lee Davies, Paul Fairclough, Tom Huddleston, David Jenkins & Ossian Ward



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