My Neighbor Totoro (in the film, the last word is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, "TOE-tuh-roh") is a wonderful film. What sets it apart from other family fare is its implied viewpoint. This is a film that views childhood from a child's perspective. Seeing it, I realized that most current Hollywood films view childhood from a grown-up perspective. Take the Toy Story trilogy, for example. Looking back, these films are about how we as adults remember childhood, and what it's like for parents to watch their children grow up. My Neighbor Totoro sees childhood from the inside out.
Here's a specific example, from early in My Neighbor Totoro. Two girls, Satsuki, about ten, and Mei, a preschooler, move into a ramshackle house with their father. As they are exploring the house for the first time, the father pretends he can't remember how to get into the attic, and asks the girls to find the door to the stairs. Satsuki runs around the house squealing, opening every door and cupboard, shouting "Not here!" and moving on. Mei follows behind, opening the doors she has just seen her sister close, and repeating her sister's shouts.
As described, this scene may not seem like much, but it's a perfect example of how children act. The older sister deliberately looks places where the stairs won't be, to lengthen the game. And the little sister doesn't care about winning the game, or really even understand what she is doing, she just knows it's fun to run around with big sis.
There is not much of a plot to this film. The girls and their father have moved out to the country while the mother convalesces at a nearby hospital. The children encounter magical creatures, including the namesake Totoro, who is something like an enormous rabbit, and a bus with the form of a many-footed cat. There's a bit of a crisis when one of the sisters goes missing, but there is no traditional story arc. In some films, this would be a problem, but not here. Again, I see this film as showing the children's point of view. It's never stated whether the creatures the girls see are imaginary. I think that the girls invent the creatures as a defense against a scary situation, their mother's illness (as befits the child's point of view, the exact nature of the illness isn't explained). There's a wonderful moment where the "cat bus" provides a way for the girls to see their mother while remaining unobserved, and as this plays out, the film cleverly allows the moment to be read as fantasy, reality, or a small miracle.
A note on the dubbing. The film originally had Japanese dialogue, and you have the option of keeping the original dialogue with subtitles. If you are watching with your children, though, you're probably going to use the English language track. The film has been dubbed into English twice, the second time by Disney, which is the version I saw. There are people bickering on the Internet right now about whether the first dubbing is superior, or whether you should watch the film with subtitles, or not watch it at all. I would ignore this bickering and just turn on the dubbing from Disney and be done with it.
I used to be a subtitle purist, but you can take these things too far. A few years ago I had rented German director Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. The disc offered German with subtitles or English, and being a purist, I chose the former. But something was wrong. The voices I heard matched poorly with the mouths on the screen. I knew that European films often eschewed location sound, but it still made no sense. Finally I was inspired to turn on the English dubbing. It matched the mouths perfectly! Yes, Herzog's actors had mostly spoken English in front of the camera, and then dubbed the film in German for the official release. So although I still generally prefer subtitles for foreign films, I am no longer a purist.
And in the case of My Neighbor Totoro, there's really no point in worrying about voices matching up to mouths when they are typical Japanese animation mouths that open as big as caves:
Second note: Paganism. Perhaps because of watching The Wicker Man (the original, not the one where Nicolas Cage asks, "How'd it get burned?" over and over), I've become especially wary of pro-paganism messages in films. Depending on how you look at it, there is a little bit in this film. The imaginary creatures are described as manifestations of nature, and in one scene, some of the creatures lead the girls in a dance to promote plant growth. In the context of girlish imagination in traditional Japanese spiritualism, I found it non-offensive.
In summary, My Neighbor Totoro is a special film. It will remind you of elements of childhood you have forgotten, and yet it is by no means a film for children only. As long as you don't go in looking for a traditional story, with rising action and a big, thudding climax, you should enjoy this. I think it is perhaps too whimsical for adults to watch entirely on their own, so under my rating system I'm only giving it 3 out of 4, but don't plan on leaving the room when this film starts.