There’s so much right with this film, I don’t know where to start. Let me just quickly say that this is my go-to movie when the children have friends over because I know there’s nothing frightening or disturbing in it, and it’s charmingly magical enough to hold everyone’s attention. Or, it did, the first ten times I showed it. But everyone has seen it now, and they’re all getting a little tired of it. Either Studio Ghibli makes a sequel or my children have to make new friends.
Genre: Animated. Absolutely beautiful. The Japanese countryside is so lovingly depicted, and the characters are believable and appealing. Without being freakishly Mars Needs Moms realistic, which is good because that’s just horrible.
Characters: Sisters Satsuki and Mei (seriously, how adorable is little Mei?) are fantastic characters: they get annoyed with one another, and look after one another; they get frightened and they do incredibly brave things; they’re loving, clever, strong-willed, independent, foolish … just little girls, really.
Their father is great, too: a single parent who works a full day and runs the home, calmly and competently. There’s no clueless-dad burned meals; no male helplessness in the face of laundry. Instead, Dad is a capable parent, who does not treat his offspring as aliens or the kitchen as a strange new country. He just gets on with it. Like dads all over the world actually do.
The story: There’s nothing frightening or ugly, no bad guys and no violence. Mei runs away to find her mother after a fight with her sister, but she’s soon found; Totoro is possibly a bit alarming for maybe a second, but that’s soon over.
When my children watched this for the first time they were 7 and 4, and I’d specifically chosen this movie because I’d heard that it was gentle without being all Care Bears. I noticed how they were braced for the scary stuff – they were so used to a narrative with baddies and danger, where something terrible has to happen to move the story forward – and how pleasantly confused they were when it all unfolded so differently.
Bonuses: This movie sparked a strong interest in Japanese culture: the children were fascinated with the food that Satsuki prepares for her sister, the way the family baths, and the Japanese characters that they see Satsuki writing.
Also, the acorn-growing dream sequence is beyond wonderful, the catbus is bizarre, and the music is fabulous.