Round 8: Childlike Simplicity

            A Troll in Central Park vs. My Neighbor Totoro

How to Treat Your Audience

It’s been a busy semester, but now, with the holidays slowing down, it’s time to pick up this series again. As of this post, Bluth has only won or tied against Miyazaki in two of seven rounds, but with this and two more rounds to go, he still has time to finish strong.

 

The line between movies for kids and movies for little kids is thicker than people realize. Kid movies can include material as intense or dark as that found in The Incredibles or The Witches, but if the primary audience is not meant to deal with anything more intense complicated than something found on “Sesame Street,” they’re an especially young demographic. Movies at this level get a bad reputation, as many have failed through a need to condescend and pander, but this is not the rule. Quality is quality, and we’ve already covered a good movie delivered by Miyazaki on this front (Ponyo). In this match, we compare the first attempts of each director to charm their smallest audience members. Can they succeed where so many have failed?

 

 My Neighbor Totoro: The truth is, even after a months-long hiatus from reviewing Miyazaki’s movies, I don’t feel like I have much original to say about this one, partly because I already said it. Could I really have avoided mentioning it like I did in my reviews of his other works? My Neighbor Totoro is not just one of Miyazaki’s biggest trademarks, it practically set, scratch that, defined the standard of all his most character-driven movies.

 

Perhaps going through the motions will help. The plot; two young girls move to a new house with their father, while their mother is recovering from a long-term illness in the hospital. I’ve already set myself up for a fall here, because from there, whether the movie acts as a “story” or an “experience” is up for debate. The girls begin catching sight of little forest spirits, gradually learning that there is some magic in the woods, until Mei, the younger sister, gives chase to a few and winds up on the gigantic tummy of the titular character. They skim the mandatory introductions before “Totoro” (Mei’s attempt to pronounce it is probably as good as any), gets back to his nap, with Mei gladly joining in. She wakes up back at home, alone in the garden. But soon after…

 

Miyazaki, as always, displays talent in his ability to capture the “magic” in everyday life, but My Neighbor Totoro becomes his quintessential display of this skill. Granted, that’s life with a lot of “actual” magic added in. But then, the line presented here between imagination and reality is so thin, that sometimes the forest spirits seem like the simple embodiment of nature’s very real power. (There is a reason the word in the title is “neighbor” that whoever changed it to “friend” in the first English release did not understand). The tone is often lighter and fluffier than anything more serious than “Teletubbies” would every try to be, and the two girls are permitted to act their age, with plenty of energy at that. In fact, Mei’s design is one of the more cartoonish of Miyazaki’s human characters. Still, when the movie opens with the two of them enjoying the moving trip in the back of their dad’s pickup truck, ducking under the furniture when he spots policemen coming, we know that nobody’s talking down to us. The leads are (mostly) genuine kids, not dense, wide-eyed observers in a censored world of lukewarm “thrills.” Miyazaki’s climax does not neglect the darker points in his portrayal of life, allowing that it can be a little scary in ways that Satsuki, the big sister, is just old enough to understand. Yet, some of the best moments are like none of the above, as when the girls, while waiting in the rain at the bus stop, are silently joined by you-know-who. Only one of the three is expecting the bus that arrives first.

 

What is it that makes this gentle little movie works so well? Is it the animation? The characters? (I won’t bother suggesting the plot.) Maybe it’s all of the above beautifully serving a vision of such warmth and resonance that it’s not just loveable; it’s distinct, even by Miyazaki’s standards. I’d be a bit compelled to say it’s not his most challenging work, but, wait, did I mention the other reasons it wasn’t easy to review?

 

 

 Final score: 8.5/10

 

 

 A Troll in Central Park: If there’s one movie in this lineup people would expect to know my opinion on ahead of time, this is probably it. Until recently, A Troll in Central Park was probably Don Bluth’s least-known theatrical release. The people marketing it put forth so little effort that its intake failed to exceed 5 digits, and the few reviews it got were dismissive, with its overall ratings falling just above The Pebble and the Penguin (below all of his other films). Outside of perhaps a minor cult following, it was one of those films that was just never mentioned. Then a couple of the rising online shows about beat down reviews shone the spotlight on it for an episode, and viewers jumped for joy, thinking they’d found the newest “Barney and Friends” or “Care Bears,” something childish and also lame enough to “deserve” all the easy shots they could take at it. Personally, I think they should have stuck with “Care Bears.” I have nothing against lambasting the condescending dreck made to keep kids quiet and sell them toys, but watching A Troll in Central Park -which admittedly has its uninspired points- makes it clearer than ever to me that Bluth is a passionate creator. Even when the idea begs for it, he’s not one to resign himself to clichés.

 

We open in the kingdom of the trolls, where bad = good and vice versa. It would have been easy enough to make it one of the many generic “evil” worlds, but instead the story weaves in a parable on conformity, suggesting the land is only this way because Queen Gnorga demands it be so and rules with an iron fist. Troll enforcers roam the streets singing their “bad troll” anthems of loyalty, an aspect that has been hastily written off as a way to label them “villains” in a condescending manner. Gnorga, by the way, is sort of like Oscar the Grouch if he became an extremist and possessed evil powers, the most prominent of which is her magic thumb that turns whatever it touches to stone. Only one troll loves greenery and flowers enough to defy her, a meek and tiny guy named Stanley, voiced by Dom DeLuise, with a power of his own; his (literally) green thumb grows plants on whatever he touches. That is, as many as he can will.

 

From here the plot is short; Stanley is caught by Gnorga, whose husband talks her into banishing him to a place where nothing grows (New York City) instead of turning him to stone. He’s discouraged by what he meets there, but he makes his way into Central Park and meets two new friends; a cutesy toddler named Rosie and her older brother Gus, who’s become a bit trollish himself after feeling neglected by his parents. He entertains the two with his magic while Gnorga decides to just finish him off, the attempts at which constitute the rest of runtime. Bluth seems to be going for a similar effect to My Neighbor Totoro, drawing power from sincere simplicity, but his craft doesn’t measure up. Gus and Stanley are not failures as characters, but where Satsuki and Mei had dimension, Rosie is cloying. As such, sequences meant to be “sweet” or “charming” come off as rather dense instead. Gnorga, meanwhile, is let down by King Lort, a weak comedic plot device. But Bluth does have a vision of his own, and when he finds ways channel his passion, the movie begins to work.

 

The songs, all of them worth it for the first and only time on Bluth’s box-office failing streak, act as microcosms of the movie’s strengths. Gnorga’s “Queen of Mean” has a nice beat to it and, by riding out her “terrible is wonderful” gag with some fun animation, makes for an amusing 2 minutes. When Stanley finds the motivation to start growing his plants again, the movie channels something like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and the result is “Absolutely Green,” a warm and sincere expression of hope. Bluth even manages to create small moments of intrigue, such as the trip on Stanley’s boat that’s made of “a dream,” accompanied by the song “Welcome to My World.”

 

“Anything that’s real starts with a dream,” explains Stanley, a claim that some have inexplicably misconstrued as an assertion that just dreaming of something makes it real. In fact, Stanley is eventually forced to recognize that to have any chance at realizing his own dreams, he will have to stand up to Gnorga.

 

What holds the movie together is the fact that both Gus and Stanley undergo character arcs that involve learning from each other. Stanley is sensitive and understands that spreading good will brings one more joy than malice does. Gus is aggressive but brave, and doesn’t hesitate to challenge Gnorga when she kidnaps his sister. Stanley wants to help, but unlike the generic payoff of disregarding fear and charging in, Stanley, however hard he tries, cannot ignore the fact that he is afraid. Only when he considers what he holds dear and could lose does the battle become worth fighting. Gus, meanwhile, walks a thin line between an evil troll and a good one, and without finding his way, he could unwittingly do some harm. The final payoff is rather perfect, at least until it goes overboard in a sequence I have an easier time pretending isn’t supposed to be literal.

 

The movie is made primarily for a pre-k crowd, and while it doesn’t fall back on clichés about believing in friendship or doing the impossible, this is clearly the only audience it expected. But again, quality, not genre, is always the deciding factor; My Neighbor Totoro and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh are classics plain and simple, Follow That Bird and Elmo in Grouchland are solid options for tykes and anyone feeling nostalgic, The Care Bears Movie and The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure are lame, pandering wastes of time, and below that are some of the laziest, most condescending attempts to make a fast buck ever put onscreen. A Troll In Central Park doesn’t really make either of those first two categories, but I’d say it at least tried and got somewhere.

 

 Final score: 6/10

 

Winner: In case anyone skips to this part, let me make this clear; the fact that I don’t hate A Troll In Central Park does not mean I’m about to do the unthinkable. My Neighbor Totoro is a classic that trumps it in every department, except maybe the soundtrack. And even there, Totoro still has first-rate background tracks that work perfectly in accenting the mood. While both manage a pass, Miyazaki takes another clear win.

 

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