Tonari no Totoro is Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo) at his very best. Subtlety is clearly Miyazaki's friend, even though Totoro presents a typical mix of his eco motives and fantastical creatures the film feels light as a feather. It's the ideal children's film (it even works when they can't understand a single word that's being said) and a pleasure for everyone else with a soft spot for feel-good. A true lesson in fantasy film making and definitely my favorite Miyazaki film so far.
Tonari no Totoro was originally released as part of a double bill, bearing the impossible task to lighten up the mood after people were subjected to Isao Takahata's Hotaru no Haka. While I prefer Takahata's work over Miyazaki's, Totoro is a film that stole my heart the first time I watched it and never declined in quality with each successive viewing. Even though the simplicity of the film might seem a bit hollow to some, it's definitely its strongest selling point and the thing that really sets it apart from its peers.
The film lacks almost any form of a dramatic story arc. There is a short bit featured near the end, 10-15 minutes tops, where a quick injection of drama takes over, but the rest of the film is just little kids running around in the Japanese country-side, being their merry selves. They do exciting stuff like exploring their new home, visiting trees or waiting for their dad at the local bus stop. It's not really the stuff dreams are made off, but even then these moments are good for some warm and heart-felt smiles.
The film is all about Totoro though. He may not have too much screen time, but his presence is always felt. While not a very complex creature, he is fun and captivating. Apart from this big, cuddly (yet sometimes deceptively scary-looking) teddy bear there are a few other fantastical creatures, though they mostly fill in the gaps between scenes where Totoro himself is absent. Fans of Spirited Away might recognize the dust bunnies and besides those you'll also be treated to the infamous cat bus.
Tonari no Totoro is colorful, bursting with all kinds of greens to bring the Japanese countryside to life. Ghibli's usual traits are present, meaning you can expect strong and delicate character animation, a clean and clear artstyle, beautifully drawn skies and a couple of scenes that highlights their skills in fast motion animation. The film still stands proud, even when it lacks all the horse power that fuels modern animation films. The only complaint I have about Ghibli's trademark style is that it remained a bit too consistent over the years, but clearly that's not the fault of this film.
The music too is extremely bright and joyful. It's one of my favorite Ghibli - Hisaishi collaborations with a couple of very memorable tracks. The song that accompanies the opening sequence alone is enough to recommend this film. As for voice acting, opinions differ. I can't stand American dubs, but I can relate to people who find the two main characters a bit too loud at times. Mei and Setsuka are both very young girls and while they do act their age, they can get a little screamy and over-excited at times. It never bothered me as such, but I can imagine that not everyone is going to appreciate the high-pitched craziness.
Tonari no Totoro is fluff, but it's the best kind of fluff you can find. There is little to no drama (until the very end, when Mei disappears from view for a short while), Miyazaki only has eye for the beauty in life (and more particularly, the care-free world of children growing up in the countryside). Right there you'll find Miyazaki's critique on how we raise our kids today, depriving them of the same joys Mei and Setsuko experience in this film. But luckily it never takes over the film itself, as this could've easily killed the atmosphere. To see the kids go about their business is just wonderful, the addition of Totoro and his gang makes the picture complete.
While clearly a film aimed at young kids, Tonari no Totoro has the power to enchant both young and old. It's a sweet, soft-hearted and imaginative film. The fantastical elements are pure perfection, the attention to detail is simply stunning. It's a very pure film, one that every kid should have the chance to experience.