Friday, May 21, 2010

My Neighbor Totoro (Disney and Streamline Versions)

There really is no argument that Hayao Miyazaki's 1998 whimsical fantasy My Neighbor Totoro is one of the greatest Anime -- correction, greatest films -- of all time.  Despite this, however, a major debate about this movie still continues to rage on:  which English dub version is preferable?

Before I offer my answer, here's a history lesson.

Back in the late 1980's, sometime after My Neighbor Totoro made its first Japanese premiere in 1988, Streamline Pictures' Carl Macek (who was dissastisfied by the quick-and-dirty disaster that was the JAL-produced dub of Castle in the Sky -- which Disney nonetheless redubbed for its recent release) was commissioned to produce the version that many viewers were introduced to regarding this film.  This dub was later picked up by Troma Pictures Studio, who gave the film a very limited theatrical release in 1993.  It was followed by a successful video release from FOX, clearing over half a million copies.  Even Macek's harshest detractors declared that this early dub was his finest hour, and it remains a favorite of many to this day.  (Unfortunately, the DVD release that followed more than seven years later was another matter--it was a pan and scan copy with no Japanese language track or bonus features, much to the disappointment of many fans.)

As fate would have it, FOX's rights for Totoro soon expired, and, as Disney acquired the Ghibli catalog, it is probably unsurprising that they would produce their own version of Totoro.  The now expected team of scriptwriters Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt, voice director Rick Dempsey, and translator Jim Hubbert, brought in famous stars to redub this film.  Due to rights complications, however, the new dub, scheduled for release in 2004, didn't appear until two years later.  But unlike Fox's version, reaction to the new dub was wildly divided (an atmosphere not uncommon with Disney's dubs for Ghibli's works); most critics were generally favorable, welcoming the new version as a fresh update for a new generation, but many longtime fans of the FOX dub were furious, condemning the new dub as a travesty and a desecration of a great family film.  The saddest fact is that most of these viewers had decided from the get-go that the Disney version, regardless of its quality, would never live up to the movie; such an atmosphere only succeeded in fueling fire to those who believe that Disney only acquired Ghibli's works just to destroy them, an argument which is totally fatuous in every way.  (It was back then, and remains so today.)

The negative backlash against the Disney redub of this beloved masterpiece is totally unjustified.  Despite my affection for the initial dub, it is no excuse to dismiss this new version as an inferior imitation.  To the average ear, it is a very fine English adaptation in its own right, and, if one is not so attached to the Fox version or the Japanese track, there really isn't anything truly wrong with it.  The only thing that may work against Disney's dub is nostalgia, but otherwise, it doesn't deserve half of the scathing slamdunks it receives.

In other words, both Fox and Disney's dubs of My Neighbor Totoro are appealing in their own ways.  Neither version is superior or inferior to the other, they're only, well, different approaches.  Both are produced by very talented people who obviously love Miyazaki's work (the Hewitt scriptwriters have even said that they liked the Streamline/Fox dub too).  Both are well cast and genuinely well acted.  And there's nothing about either dub that compromises the atmosphere or tone of this masterpiece at all.  Contrary to what anyone else may declare.

So in my evaluation of both dubs, I will not pedestalize one over the other; nor will I compare them to the Japanese version, as I feel that dubs should always be viewed on their own merits, not as a comparison tool.  The cast of Totoro is a considerably small one compared to most other Ghibli movies, so only the principal (important) characters will be covered.

SATSUKI (Lisa Michelson, Streamline/FOX dub; Dakota Fanning, Disney dub) -- The two sisters who serve as the main characters carry the show along, so it is important for both to be voiced appropriately and ACT like children. Lisa Michelson, the late wife of the ADR director for FOX Totoro, raises her mature-sounding voice to sound childlike. Usually such attempts can sound strained or unbelievable, but it works very well for Lisa. She obviously sounds like a sister of the verge of adulthood while struggling to maintain her childlike innocence.
Dakota takes the character in a similar way, but with a different approach.  While her performance may not be on the same caliber as, say, Coraline, it's a very good one in its own right.  She has an odd tendency to sound "older than her age," but this works pretty well with her character.  There are some scenes where she comes across as more low-key than necessary (notably toward the end of the movie, where she underacts somewhat), yet her interactions with her little sister Elle make the dub equally natural and believeable.  She's not afraid to let loose during the scenes where she and Mei are frolicking around the house or even screaming to scare away mysterious specters.  Bottom-line:  Lisa Michelson's efforts are great for their time, but Dakota is a great actress, too.  Both tie in this role.  (It should be noted that the name is pronounced differently in both dubs:  the first dub calls her Sat-SOO-ki, while Disney's simply says "Sats-ki".  The latter is the correct way to pronounce the name.)

MEI (Cheryl Chase, Streamline/FOX dub; Elle Fanning, Disney dub) -- Arguably the juiciest role in the film, Mei is a hyperactive and sometimes impatient youngster who often upstages her big sister.  At the time I listened to the first dub, I didn't realize that Cheryl actually was trying to sound very childlike, because it sounded very natural.  This is a very fitting example of adults voicing children convincingly.
Elle Fanning's interpretation is no less entertaining; in fact, one might argue that she steals the show.  Also working in her favor is that she is approximately around the character's age (off by about two years, but not by much).  She is consistently lively and adorable, with a cute laugh to match.  She relishes any moment where Mei is in action and handles her emotions in a very effective way that don't feel forced.  Her crying scene toward the end, too, is priceless. I've heard many declare that she is annoying, but one could say the same thing about Cheryl's take.  All in all both Cheryl and Elle are great, however, Elle gets an edge from me due to sounding more "realistic", so to speak.

DAD (aka MR. KUSAKABE) (Greg Snegoff, Streamline/FOX dub; Tim Daly, Disney dub) -- The scatterbrained but kindly father of the girls is at times easygoing and fun and other times serious and comforting, just like any father. Snegoff's approach on the character is pretty much as you would expect, and more than appropriate (he also served as the ADR director and wrote the script, as mentioned earlier).
Tim Daly plays the character identical to Snegoff's, and is pretty much on par. He has a soothing, soft gentle voice, and he doesn't hesitate to let go in the moments where he acts childlike (in the bath scene, for instance).  Once again, both actors tie.

MOM (aka MRS. KUSAKABE) (Alexandra Kenworthy, Streamline/FOX dub; Lea Salonga, Disney dub) -- The mother of the girls has a very small part, but is equally well played in both dubs. Both Salonga and Kenworthy have soft, motherly voices and portray their characters pretty much the same.

GRANNY (NANNY in FOX dub) (Natalie Core, Streamline/FOX dub; Pat Carroll, Disney dub) -- This character is approached differently but effectively in both dubs. Natalie is as grandmotherly as you'd expect, very soft and gentle, only getting emotional in the film's critical scenes toward the end.
As for Pat Carroll, I was surprised when I found out that she was cast for this character, but there were no traces of Ursula within her. It was also very pleasing and refreshing to hear her play a different kind of character rather than a nasty, bargaining, double-crossing Sea Witch.  Once you get past the jarring recognition, it's easy to appreciate her performance too.
KANTA (Kenneth Hartman, Streamline/FOX dub; Paul Butcher, Disney dub) -- One thing that both dubs have in common is that this impish youngster who teases Satsuki (and later befriends her) is played by a young boy. Kenneth's voice is noticeably deeper than Paul's, but both play the character just as they should:  shy, antagonistic, and, later on, emphatic.  One thing that Paul does differently is that he makes these "grunting" noises to accentuate his attempted gestures to hand his either a picnic basket or his umbrella to Satsuki.  I found this pricelessly funny.  There's also a difference in the approach to the scene where the boy argues with his mother:  Kenneth sounds bratty and defiant, while Paul has a bit more of a "whiney" tone.  Both are effective, however.
TOTORO (Greg Snegoff, Streamline/FOX dub; Frank Welker, Disney dub) -- The titular character is only in for a few scenes, and does little more than growl, grumble, and roar. There is no actual credit to who did Totoro's voice in the Fox dub (and, contrary to popular belief, it's not the Japanese voice actor -- it is, surprisingly, Greg Snegoff), but it's difficult to evaluate the performance as a whole when it consists basically of only one speaking line (if it can be called that).  One thing that should be mentioned is, probably due to the scratchy sound mix, at times his roar sounds a bit like a chainsaw being revved up.
One of the biggest criticisms I hear of the Disney dub is the dubbing of Totoro's voice; fans have declared that he sounds too ferocious in comparison. However, I will argue that either interpretation is valid. Welker shouldn't be discredited, either; he is a fabulous actor and what he brings is no less credible.  Granted, all he has to do is provide bass-rumbling "creature noises", but he does them pretty much as you'd expect.  (For other roles where he does similarly "beastly" noises, check out BigFoot in A Goofy Movie or even the Tiger God from Aladdin).
(Some viewers have taken issue with the pronunciation of Totoro's name in Disney's dub as opposed to the "TO-toro" in the Fox dub, but either way is valid.)
CAT BUS (Carl Macek, Streamline/FOX dub; Frank Welker, Disney dub) -- The approach to the most unusual character in the film is strikingly different in both dubs. In FOX's version, Carl Macek gives the cat a high-pitched male voice with only two lines, "Next stop, little sister!" which works fairly well.  Otherwise, it's basically distorted sounding "growls" and not much else.
Welker, on the other hand, provides the character with cat-like meows and at one point even screeches, "MEEEEEEI!"; an odd substitute, but it's no less effective.  It may only be jarring to hear Welker's approach if you're so accustomed to the FOX dub, yet that's really my only quibble with him.

The minor supporting characters in both the FOX and Disney dubs are portrayed equally well.

Voices aside, one other difference in the FOX and Disney dubs is in the adaptation of the script.  Macek and Snegoff's script is sometimes a bit loose in places (naming the fuzzy creatures "dust bunnies", for instance), but is otherwise faithful to the original.  Unfortunately, I did notice several places where the dialogue sometimes sounds stilted, particularly in Mei's confrontation with the goat.  Yet since this was done in an era when technology had not yet caught up with how to do dubbing, I'm more forgiving.

The Disney version, scripted by the Hewitts, on the other hand, is a fresh new translation of the Japanese script, and, as such, hews closer in tone to it.  Past Disney dubs have sometimes gone overboard with adding in extra dialogue (although I'm nowhere nearly as anal about it; the dubs are still charming), but with Totoro this habit is very much toned down.  Many may argue otherwise, but this script actually surpasses that of the previous dub, for sounding both natural and going the extra mile of including details that the previous dub neglected to mention (the origin of the Totoros, for instance). And while fans may groan all they want about "classic" lines being replaced, the fact remains is that the basic story is unchanged. There are a few places where the lip-sync doesn't always mesh, but note that I emphasize the word FEW.  (Some will take issue about the fuzzy creatures called "soot gremlins", but either translation is fine.)

Probably the only (minor) false note of Disney's dub is in the handling of the opening and ending songs.  The translated lyrics are the same as in the FOX version, but the singer is different.  Unlike the warm tones of Cassie Byram, who delivered "Hey Let's Go" and the showclosing "Totoro", respectively, these songs are instead handled by one Sonya Isaacs.  Her voice is competent enough and she hits high notes appropriately, but her approach to the opening song has more of a "gung-ho" attitude and as such, is a bit less charming.  She does fare a little better in the ending song, particularly in the bits that she harmonizes parts of the last couple of verses.  One other difference is that the songs sound more crisper and vibrant in the new dub but come across as somewhat scratchy-sounding in the older one.  So, basically, there are pros and cons to both versions:  one is more soothing but more "old" in terms of clarity, while the other offers technical improvements but not so much on the singing end.

Otherwise, however, there really aren't any major quibbles I can find with Disney's dub of My Neighbor Totoro.  There is no denying that the FOX dub is a classic of its time, but Disney's reinterpretation is by no means a disservice.  While the arguments over which version is superior may rage on until the very bitter end, it's obvious that the creators of both dubs are fans of Miyazaki, and it shows in both takes.  Each takes their own approach to the story, and are neither better nor worse.  They simply are what they are.

UPDATE:  Thanks to robert for identifying the singer for the FOX dub of Totoro!  And Khyron Yopvaiumat for identifying the voice of Totoro in the FOX dub!

Also, as a response to posters who insist on badmouthing the Disney dub in comparison the FOX dub:

Sorry, but I will not be accepting any such comments on my blog.  As moderator of this blog, I personally feel that both dubs of Totoro have merit, and I don't think it's particularly fair to put down one over the other, and I still stand by this statement.  If you don't agree, that's understandable, but one-sided, hateful comments will NOT be tolerated on my site.


  1. I remember reading somewhere that the voice actor for Totoro in the Fox Dub is Rob Paulsen. Don't know if it's true, through.

    Can I suggest a dub to review? There's one in particular that I have in mind.

    1. Actually, the Totoro in the original English Streamline version was voiced by Greg Snegoff who also wrote, directed and voiced the Father.

  2. Pierre-Olivier:

    I really doubt that it is Rob Paulsen, as it doesn't sound like him, and besides, only someone involved with this production can respond.

    As for suggesting a dub to review, you're welcome to do so. But you'll have to do so by way of contacting me, Prede, or Fighting Dreamer via mail, not by comments. But yes, we are definitely open for ANY suggestion, for we are, after all, dedicated to reviewing Anime Dubs.

  3. Ah, I have to disagree with you about My Neighbor Totoro's greatness being unarguable. Frankly, it's one of the most plotless movies I've ever seen. It's certainly fairly atmospheric and heartwarming, but I don't think that alone is enough.

    But I suppose it doesn't really matter. Your review was, once again, very interesting and informative.

  4. @Jon Turner

    If I can send my suggestions by mail, where can I find your contact info? I can't seem to find it anywhere.

  5. This movie is great, but incredibly weird. I still believe that Miyazaki was under the influence of potent chronic when he made this film, but that'd only add to its charm. It DOES feel a little short, though.

  6. Uhhhh... potent chronic? Not clear about that.

    Yeah, it DEFINITELY is the shortest of the Miyazaki films; clocking in at approximately 87 minutes. That's thirty minutes less than most of his other films. Still, the "strangeness" of the movie, to me, is only part of its charm. For me, what really came across was the relationship between the two sisters; it was so realistic and compelling. That, and Totoro himself reminds me of a guinea pig I used to own; he was every bit as gentle and cuddly as the title character (not noisy or athletic, though. :) )

  7. This in my opinon is the best disney dub. The casting was perfect, the voice acting was great, the quite moments remain, and the orginal script remained intact. The only thing that prevents it from being perfect is the songs, which on there own are just fine, exepted the Streamline version was able to keep me as emotionally involved as the Japanese version this one suffered by comparasin.

  8. I don't know if I'd go that far and say it's the best Disney dub, for I personally like them all, but it definitely is a noteworthy effort and doesn't deserve the backlash it gets from fans who grew up on the original. The songs are handled well in both versions, although I do feel sometimes that Sonya sounded a bit too gungho in the OP.

  9. Is it worth mentioning that the Ghibli Blog thought the English Dub(not sure which one) was excellent XD?

  10. Oh, I liked them all too, its just most of them had at least one thing that took me out of the movie for a minute(Pazu's mature voice, Jiji's last line, extra dialog where it shouldn't be, and so on). All of them had more then enough redeeming factors to make them worth watching anyway but My Neighbor Totoro was the one where I couldn't detect any major holes, and thats why it gets the win for me.

  11. I may be in the minority, but I actually prefer the Disney version. No offence to Carl Macek, it was certainly groundbreaking for its time but the Disney version in my option updated it. I never really cared much for Cheryl Chase's Mei, reminds me way too much of Angelica.

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  13. Here's my answer: While I don't have anything against the Japanese versions of Anime, especially these movies, I honestly just don't see the point in watching them in their native language. First of all, I obviously don't speak Japanese, and I actually don't really feel as though I'm taken into a whole new world by listening to a language I don't understand. On the contrary. It's very hard for me to connect.

    Secondly, I personally don't see anything wrong with watching Anime in English, especially if the dub in question is extremely good. And many of the dubs I've reviewed right here are of good to excellent quality IMO, and I feel that dubs in general get a very undeserved reputation of being inferior. From the start, I simply decided I would give dubs a chance from day one, and frankly, I don't see anything wrong with my decision at all.

    I also don't really believe there's anything remotely "better" about watching Anime in Japanese, it's just Anime in a different language.

    Finally, Miyazaki himself has said that he doesn't think the subtitled versions of his movies are anymore "authentic" than the Disney dubs. He says that viewers should watch these movies in their native language of choice, not read subtitles. With an artist making an argument like that, who am I to say otherwise? Especially since I genuinely do believe there are such things as good dubs.

    Miyazaki's movies always just "feel" as though they're meant to be in English, although mainly that's on account of the consistently top-notch dubs that Disney makes for their films. I just like them in English. That's all.

  14. The Disney dub isn't as bad as everyone says it is. Honestly the first time I watched the Disney release I didn't pay much attention and didn't even realize it was a different version. When my children and I finished watching it, I 'felt' odd, the movie didn't inspire me the way it had before. It wasn't until a second viewing that I realized the change in dialogue and voices, that's when I looked into why it was different. Honestly, and I really hate saying this, I have no idea why I like the older version more then the Disney one; it 'feels' different to me when I watch it. Crap review and/or explanation right? My opinion, if you have never seen either version, the Disney dub is excellent; if you aren't obsessive with movies or take some bizarre deeper meaning from them then either one is fine. However, if you have retarded emotions that are easily swayed by cute kids shows, like me, stick with whichever one makes you feel happier.

  15. I couldn't stand the new Disney dub, but I think it's more of a nostalgia issue. Hearing the new voices for me was unpleasant because it was not the version I grew up with. I have no problem with people who prefer the Disney version, I just wish the one I grew up with was more easily available for a decent price.

    1. That is understandable, but sadly that's just the way things work. Personally, I have no real problems with Disney's version; to me it's just another great version of a classic tale. Not perfect, but still great. I'm just not as judgmental.

    2. Even so, nostalgia IS an understandable position, and you're entitled to it. I also appreciate you don't have a problem with others who like the newer version, because that's a rarity among Anime fans online. Sometimes a lot of them can be very pushy and try to act like theirs is the only opinion that counts. You didn't come across like that, hence why I decided to have your post posted.

  16. "The only thing that may work against Disney's dub is nostalgia." Totally agree. I don't like the Disney version, but I'll be the first to admit that it's solely because I'm so attached to the Fox dub. My little brother and I watched that version so much as children, that as an adult--despite not seeing Totoro for over 15 years--when I saw the Disney version with my daughter, I immediately heard something "off" for me. Extra dialogue, unfamiliar took me out of the story. I actually stopped the movie a few minutes in, because I don't want my daughter to become familiar with the other version, haha.

    But as you said, there's nothing wrong with the Disney version at all. From what I watched, it seems like a great dub (also, I love the Fanning girls!). But I'm just too darn attached to my 90s stuff. :)

    We watched other Ghibli films as kids, but only a couple times at friends' houses (I actually never saw Spirited Away until a few years ago), so I'm not attached to any particular versions of those. And I wouldn't mind giving the Disney version of Totoro an actual watch someday, but I know I won't like it as much--as the author stated, I've pretty much already made up my mind, haha. Nostalgia can be insanely powerful.

  17. I am another person that has strong feelings of nostalgia for the Fox dub. I still to this day have my VHS copy of the film. I still watch it with my family.
    That being said, I have no major problems with the Disney dub. I only had minor concerns with the opening and endings songs; which you described in detail the slight "faults".
    My other concern, coming from my own experience as an actor/voice actor: is that I feel that dubs don't necessarily need to be recast underfunded if the previous dubbing was adequately accomplished. But when the need arises to redub, I feel it would have been more appropriate to use talented (although, perhaps not well-known) voice actors; instead of immediately resorting to celebrity actors.
    All in all, I think you made a brilliant review of this timeless film. I may have my concerns, but this is still a wonderful film that has touched so many people. For that, I cannot discredit Disney for bringing this classic to yet another generation of eager viewers.

  18. Her name is Cassie Byram. She actually commented on a YouTube video stating how flattered she was that people preferred her singing. I had to see if it was legit, so I looked at a few singing videos on her channel and yes, it's her.