The gentle warmth of "My Neighbor Totoro," a new animated feature opening citywide today, provides a welcome respite from the rapid-fire mayhem that usually characterizes Japanese animation seen in the United States. Instead of the standard sci-fi laser battles and explosions, writer-director Hayao Miyazaki offers a charming fantasy that stresses the affectionate bond between two young sisters.
While their mother remains in the hospital, 4-year-old Mei and 10-year-old Satsuki move into an aged house in the country with their professor-father. When Mei explores the nearby woods, she meets Totoro, a seven-foot forest spirit who looks like an outsized cross between a bunny rabbit and a fuzzy throw pillow. The father believes Mei's story about meeting this magical guardian, and respectfully asks Totoro to watch over the children, which he does with the aid of a few assistants and a 12-legged "catbus" that is half animal/half machine.
Guided by their supernatural friend, the sisters share a series of adventures, soaring over the landscape while Totoro's roars make the winds blow. But the story remains focused on the affection Mei and Satsuki share. Unlike many recent cartoon chums, the two sisters seem genuinely fond of each other, and their camaraderie never feels saccharine or forced.
An accomplished director, Miyazaki enjoys a cult following in both Japan and the U.S. for such fast-paced adventures as "Lupin III: Castle Cagliostro." It's rare to see such skillful cutting, staging and camera work in a non-Disney animated film.
The weakest aspect of "Totoro" is the animation itself, which never rises above the level of Saturday morning kidvid. The characters move jerkily, and many of the designs are awkward-looking: Mei has a wide, frog-like mouth that shows all of her back teeth whenever she yells, which is often.
But despite these limits, "My Neighbor Totoro" (Times rated: Family) is a gentle and affirming film. It's certain to delight smaller children, although boys accustomed to the slam-bang violence of super-hero cartoon features and TV shows may chafe at its leisurely pace.