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My Neighbors the Yamadas DVD (Hyb)

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Reviews of this title:

Jon F. Turner - Sep 1 2005
Rating: Pretty good!
It's wacky, it's different, it's delightful.
Of all the movies Studio Ghibli has produced, MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS could probably be the most unconventional of them all. This family comedy feels like a very jarring change of pace for director Isao Takahata, the man who gave us a heartbreaker in GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES and a decidedly foreign yet compelling drama in POM POKO.

For one thing, the feature is not--I repeat, IS NOT--plot-oriented. It comes across as a series of individual skits involving the titular family in their day-to-day life. The lack of a narrative may put off people beforehand, but doing so could very well deprive you of a most delightful--and refreshingly original--viewing experience. Watching how the Yamadas interact and go about life is every bit as poignant, funny, and off-the-walls as real family life can be; not only are we treated to disputes on who gets to watch TV, but we get to see stories such as the youngest sister, Nonoko, getting accidentally left behind at a shopping mall and all the trouble her parents go to in order to find her. The movie also relishes in silliness and surrealism--especially in the sequences where Mr. Yamada imagines himself as a superhero rescuing his wife and mother-in-law from crooks and the showclosing "Que Sara Sara", where the family floats through the sky on balloons. All these random events unfold at a roller coaster pace.

What I enjoyed most about the movie was the way it looks and sounds. For YAMADAS, the animation is produced in a newspaper comic strip style, which, given that this is what the movie was based on, is an ingenious match for its nature. Simplistic scribblings straight out of a serial fill the screen with a charm that is utterly irresistible. The catchy, tuneful score adds to the essence of the whimsical atmosphere. Employing bits of famous classical pieces on the soundtrack (such as Mahler's First Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, and Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony) is a very inspiring touch.

There was only one thing about the movie that I found very confusing: at the end of most of the "segments" present in the film, we see what appears to be a quote taken from various poets. I was also unclear about the "pachinko" references, and the scene where Mr. Yamada is throwing cards down for his family left me puzzled. This is obviously a film steeped in Japanese culture--and one that is more likely to be understood by a Japanese speaking audience.

Which brings me to the biggest problem I have with the Disney dub: while English script writers Eric Garcia and Leo Chu earn points for attempting to remain as faithful to the original material as possible, they do so in exchange for making any effort in presenting this story to a wider audience who would be otherwise unfamiliar with the heavy references to Japanese culture. That alone makes MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS the weakest of the Disney-Ghibli dubs I have heard thus far.

This is not to say that the dub isn't worth watching, however--on the contrary. While the script lacks coherency in places--although the writing is very amusing and very entertaining overall--I have no problems with Disney's selection of actors to record the voices. The incomparable James Belushi takes on the role of Mr. Yamada with exuberance and enthusiasm, and Molly Shannon voices his wife, Mrs. Yamada, with just the right mixture of sweetness and no-nonsense demeanor; the scene where Mr. and Mrs. Yamada argue over who gets to watch the TV is delivered with dead-on comic timing and believability--making this moment one of the dub's best moments. Young child performers Daryl Sabara and Liliana Mumy play the Yamada siblings, Noboru and Nonoko, whose interactions are so natural that you'll swear that they recorded their lines together--which, as a matter of fact, they did!... well, for the cookie scene, anyway. Tress MacNeille, a multi-talented voice actress best known for roles in shows such as TINY TOON ADVENTURES and ANIMANIACS, has been cast in many of the Studio Ghibli English productions, and it is a treat to hear her another--she nails the crotchety old Grandma Shige to a T and beyond. David Ogden Stiers makes a brief appearance in the movie as well, narrating the titles of the various "segments" in addition to the verses displayed at the end of each episode.

Most of Disney's Studio Ghibli DVD releases have been two disk-sets, but this one is a single disc set; perhaps this is just as well, because while the visual and aural aspects of the presentation are impeccable as always, there is little in the way of extras--all we have is the same behind-the-microphone featurette we have seen on the other DVD releases (save POM POKO, which, for some reason, didn't have one), storyboards, as well as trailers and TV spots. At least this is consistent with the other releases, however, so I really can't complain.

Steeped in heavy references to Japanese culture and atypical of animated features mainstream viewers are used to, MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS may have a hard time finding its audience; the film was not a great success in Japan, and at this point it is hard to tell whether it will suffer the same fate in America. However, it is highly unlikely that folks seeking creativity and something different from the norm will go wrong by discovering this delightfully inventive and charming film.