I always have a hard time describing what this movie feels like. On the surface, it's an incredibly simple story about two girls who move into the country with their father while their mother is in hospital. They then discover that several strange spirits inhabit their old house and both make friends with a particularly large one name Totoro who lives in the wood beside their house and they adjust to their new home in the country while having fun and playing with Totoro and all the other spirits and meeting new people along the way.
On the surface, the movie sounds really simple and it is. I honestly think you could watch this movie on mute with no subtitles and still understand most of what's going on. I think the real joy in this movie comes from how comforting it is and the wonderful escapism that Miazaki always manages to do so well. While this is a movie that children can completely enjoy (I definitely think that this is by far the most family friendly Ghibli film along with maybe Kiki's delivery service), I honestly think adults may be more entranced by it. This doesn't feel like children's film, it feels more like a film about childhood. Or at least, the childhood we wish we had.
I mentioned before how comforting the film feels and visuals and animation help a lot with this. Of course it's Ghibli, so it's already going to look gorgeous, that's a given. I think my favourite part of the art direction of My Neighbour Totoro and a lot of other Ghibli films is the warm colours and inviting atmosphere. Miazaki always seems to have a real knack for creating places that we really wished we lived in, even if those places are meant to be just the real world.
The character designs look simple but enjoyable and they always seem to have that nice, Ghibli feel to them in that they're simple enough to engage a young audience while also being warm and comforting (I keep repeating the word 'comforting', I know, but it really is the word that comes most to mind when I think of this movie). The vast landscapes of the countryside and the warm use of colours and lighting just make the whole experience feel that much more happy and charming. Everything in this movie feels like it was meant to make you go 'awww' at the cute spirits and characters or sigh happily as you see the sun washing over the corn fields. It's hard to describe but it just gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling that only Ghibli's animation style can give you.
Keeping with the theme of warmth and comfort, the score seems to be dominated by wind and string instruments that sweep along with the animation. Every now and then a soft piano piece will come in, but it most seems to be those various types of instruments and they give a lovely softness to the environment, making it seem all the more attractive. The music never blares over the actions of the characters or overtakes them but it is by no means forgettable. Of special note is the 'Totoro theme' present at the beginning and end of the movie that is impossible not to smile upon hearing and keep humming for the rest of the day (or sing along with if you listen enough times).
In terms of voice acting, the Japanese is solid and the voices of the Mei and Satsuki are particularly adorable. For the Disney English dub, with the exception of the two main girl characters, there is actually a fair of Disney voice actors filling in the supporting characters and I love a lot of Disney voice actors so I always like it when they do cast a lot of them in a Ghibli dub (always a joy to hear Pat Caroll). As for the two mains... they're decent? They're not bad but they just feel more like young girls doing voices rather actually acting the part. They kind of sound like they were just cast because they were young enough to pull off convincing little girl type voices.
It's not a bad dub, I don't really think any of the Ghibli dubs are bad and some are fantastic, but this one definitely feels the most underwhelming.
So as I said before, this is very simple story and I think that weirdly enough turns out to be it's greatest strength. There aren't any evil villains, there aren't any harsh family dilemmas (there is a conflict near the end involving the mother but, even then, it's played down far more than it could have been) and there isn't even a huge amount of weird stuff that Ghibli is famous for going on. I mean yeah, the giant Totoro spirit and the glowing cat bus are strange but even then, they only take up roughly a third of the film and you strangely accept it because you're just so wrapped up in the warm fluffy feeling the film gives you that you don't question it.
And that's what the film does best. It pulls you into an idealized world where no harshness exists. This is a film that is focused purely on emotion and nostalgia, logic plays very little part in it. And you become so comfortable and emotionally invested in the film that you don't question why there's a giant cat bus flying in the sky or how a giant magical spirit can make huge trees grow in a matter of seconds. You become so wrapped up in these two little girls who remind you of that wide-eyed curiosity that everyone had growing up and their kind and gentle father.
This is essentially an escapism movie. Even if it's meant to be set in the real world, you always know that life and even childhood isn't like the way it's presented here. It's an idealized version of the world through the eyes of a child and it works so well because Miazaki is always so talented at finding the joy in the smallest of things in his movies. The biggest draw of the movie is that it is just so damn likeable and I can see why so many adore it. From beginning to end, the experience feels like a big, warm hug from someone you love and you leave the movie feeling peaceful and happy. I apologize for not saying more but it really is something that's hard to describe. You can't explain it but you can certainly feel it.
Is it my favourite Ghibli movie? No. But I can certainly see why it is for some people and, despite not being my favourite Ghibli or even Miazaki movie, I find it impossible to watch without grinning like an idiot. I've definitely met people who don't like it as much as the other Ghibli movies but I've never met anyone who outright hates it and I can't imagine someone ever hating it. It's just too nice and fulfilling. If you haven't seen it, make a note to. Preferably with a blanket and some hot chocolate. You won't regret it.