It is at this point in Miyazaki’s body of work that things that a turn for the very peculiar. Until this film the strangest elements of his style (particularly the creatures) have been background elements used to support the human characters, and while the “Totoros” can still be said to serve this same purpose they very clearly serve a fairly prominent role in this film.
My Neighbor Totoro is often cited as one of Miyazaki’s best (along with Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away), but is possibly one of his least accessible films because of its oddities. The creatures are very odd with their growling and massive, expressive smiles, but they show enough personality and character that it is easy to warm up to them. The catbus, for instance, looks very odd and is very weird to see at first, but once you become accustomed to the whole idea it works.
There is little to no plotting in My Neighbor Totoro, which puts it in a fun category of plotless films which can be intriguing and sometimes frustrating, but here works because the film is clearly made to feel like a slice of life. The two main characters, Setsuki (the older sister) and Mei (the younger sister), feel like very real little girls, and watching them sort of grow up and learn during the course of the movie is fun. The plot, if there is one, involves them moving to the country with their father so they can be closer to their sick mother who lives at a hospital. Much of the drama in the last third revolves around the mother and the little girl, Mei, getting lost when she goes to visit her mom.
The film features the adventurous nature found in all of Miyazaki’s films, a strong lead female (although, this is an interesting case as Setsuki has not yet matured into her own even at the end of the film), and the wonderful visual element of flying. This is probably the most lighthearted of Miyazaki’s films (Ponyo, I think, features far too much drama to take this title — despite its carefree nature), and his most kid-friendly.
I wish the film had a more satisfying conclusion, but I’ll assume the lack of any real resolution is done to leave the audience with the feeling that the story of this family continues on: that Setsuki and Mei continue meeting with the Totoros for many years and continue having adventures in their new country home. I like this movie, but the English dub isn’t my favorite. While I’ve never heard it personally, I understand that most consider the older dub made by Twentieth Century Fox superior.
This is not my favorite of his movies, but it’s a lot of fun and heartwarming.