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My Neighbor Totoro” (Totoro for short) is hands down, the most beloved animated family movie of all time at my house. My son Cedar has watched it dozens of times over the years and loves it just as much at age nine as he did when he was younger.

Totoro, created by Hayao Miyazaki, focuses on the simple wonder of being a child. I think Chicago Sun-Times film critic, Roger Ebert, puts it best saying, “Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we currently occupy.” Ebert, who notes that Totoro is one of his, “Great movies” is right on target. Totoro is a sharp contrast to what children grow up with in America these days. American kids’ animation films are typically stressful instead of peaceful; villains and fight scenes rule, kids and adults have major conflicts with each other and in general, the plot arch usually revolves around conflict rather than peaceful growth and development.

The film Totoro reminds viewers that all children really need for fun and growth is nature, family, some “magical” seeds and a healthy dose of imagination.

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The Totoro plot:
The plot of Totoro is simple but charming, focusing on the lives of two little Japanese girls, Satsuki and her little sister Mei. The sisters and their fun-loving dad have just moved to a new home in the country in order to be closer to where their mother is recovering from a long-term illness. The girls and their father settle into a daily routine which includes school, playing in the yard, chores and visits to the hospital. However, beyond their normal routine the girls get caught up in the imaginative world of Totoro, a rabbit-like creature who seems to be a sentry of the forest and the caretaker of the mighty Camphor tree.

Mei first encounters a baby Totoro while playing in the yard and follows him into the woods where she meets a much larger “adult” Totoro. Instead of being frightened Mei climbs right up onto his belly for a nap. Later little Mei drags her father and sister into the woods so she can introduce them to her new friend. Of course they don’t find him, but Mei’s father accepts her story of the mysterious creature and leads the girls in a salute to the Camphor tree, thanking the tree and forest spirits for all they do to watch over nature and the children.

As the movie progresses potentially scary situations ensue, but instead of coming across as frightening these scenes are handled with ease. In one scene the children go to meet their father’s bus. The bus is late and the woods around them are dark. This situation could easily be frightening and it might have been in an American film. However, in Totoro the woods are not scary as a Totoro friend peacefully watches over the girls and amuses them with his delight in the raindrops falling on an umbrella. Later it turns out that the girls’ mother may be sicker than they thought and little Mei attempts to get to the hospital on her own. Satsuki is frantic that Mei is missing but Totoro and the Catbus help Satsuki to find her turning what could have been a threat into an everyday situation.

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The Green-Themes of Totoro:

Family matters: What’s most striking about Totoro is how it’s completely ordinary but utterly enchanting all at once. This closely knit family co-sleeps, eats their meals together, laughs together and there’s a true feeling of love and sincere familial attachment throughout the movie.

Let kids be kids: While we all know that children need to be supervised and cared for by adults, the girls in the Totoro movie are also encouraged to be independent and brave, to explore dusty attics, to hike through the woods all on their own. In today’s world where parents keep their kids in sight at all times and only 6% of children ages 9-13 play outside on their own (Children & Nature Network, 2008) Totoro is a refreshing change and offers a long-gone solution – allow your kids the space and time to be kids. Send them to play outside all on their own. Let them explore. Believe in their funny stories about make-believe creatures.

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Respect nature: In Totoro, Granny teaches the girls to garden, allowing them to eat veggies freshly picked. The main reason the girls’ father chooses their new home is because it’s situated right by the great Camphor tree. The family bikes to the hospital or walks more than they drive. The children in Totoro spend more time outside playing than inside. Simple tree seeds are seen as magical items in this movie. In fact, ever since my son saw Totoro he’s been obsessed with collecting and planting acorns – because of this movie he’s convinced amazing things happen when you plant seeds and protect trees.

Above all else, Totoro is inspiring, tranquil, nature-focused and 100% advertisement free in a world that’s become hectic and largely nature-free . My son calls this his, “Relaxing movie” and it’s easy to see why. Adults and children get along, the woods are a safe haven instead of threatening, the children act like children instead of mini-adults, and imagination instead of things, is the key to adventure. Totoro offers lessons parents should take to heart if we want to raise confident, happy and eco-aware kids.

So what’s your family’s favorite animated movie?

We really want to know! Answer in the comments below…

This series has been presented by Best Buy Movie Mode. The mobile app that translates the Minions during the 3-D theatrical end credits of Despicable Me. It’s a must have for Despicable Me movie goers, check it out here!