One of Hayao Miyazaki's most memorable efforts, My Neighbor Totoro introduced the world to a simpler, more kid-friendly style of anime we'd seen from Studio Ghibli up to this point (the film followed Castle In The Sky) and yet retained all the artistry and creativity we've come to love from the director.
This is one film where the story really comes second to the characters. We follow two young girls who move into an old house in the countryside as they discover a hidden place in the nearby woods where these bizarre but friendly spirits live. There's an underlying subplot involving the girls' sick mother which adds some welcome reality to the whole thing and even suggests that maybe these forest spirits are all just the girls' way of dealing with their mother's illness. But there's no need to look too deeply into things, essentially it's just a fun little Alice In Wonderland/Secret Garden-style tale about little girls meeting all sorts of otherworldly creatures including rabbit-like mouthless thingies, the big bear-like Totoro and a cat bus that's actually a huge, living cat you can enter and sit inside of. I can't imagine it smelling all that great in there, to be honest. The creatures we're introduced to are all extremely cute and the film has this charming timeless quality which makes it instantly irresistible. It has this unique nostalgic holiday feel to it that's both sad and happy at the same time, the forest, meanwhile, bringing an air of unease and mystery to the proceedings.
Visually, My Neighbor Totoro is unsurprisingly gorgeous and is just as detailed and colourful of a work as you'd expect from Hayao Miyazaki. Like I said, similar to Ponyo, this is a more kid-friendly effort but, although it includes a bunch of obviously adorable moments, it doesn't talk down to its younger viewers instead offering them awesome things to look at and teaching them about death in a subtle, surreal way, thereby breaking it to them gently and giving older viewers a darker, more meaningful theme to get interested in. There's really not much more to say about this one seeing as it's so simple and straight-forward but, if I had to nitpick, I'd say the film's only minor flaw is its rather abrupt conclusion. The movie isn't particularly short for an animated feature but it feels it. This is probably due to the build-up being so effective with the slow-burning discovery of that spirit world that it contrasts directly with the rather normal-paced third act. You think the film will eventually develop into a fuller, more constant fantasy adventure like Spirited Away but just when you really start getting into it, it turns out it's really about the mother subplot and the film basically ends after that. This isn't too much of a bad thing, especially since it makes My Neighbor Totoro much less predictable than other films of that type where a character either wakes up from a dream at the end or a character is healed by some magical creature's tears or something. Here, yes there is magic and there are surreal images but there is also a humanity to the whole thing, the children's imaginations running wild while the parents' real problems lie underneath: it's bittersweet but completely charming nonetheless.
That My Neighbor Totoro is one of Miyazaki's most recognisable animated films is understandable, it's cute as hell and the concept of a smiling Catbus is one you certainly won't forget in a hurry. It's a beautifully crafted little film and one of Studio Ghibli's must-see creations.