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The Dub Reviewer: My Neighbor Totoro

by Jon Turner

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There really is no argument that Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 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 & 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, 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.

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, and again, they tie, 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 (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), 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).

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.

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 the nameless singer who delivered “Hey Let’s Go” and the show-closing “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 crisp 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.

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Author: Jon Turner

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