My Neighbor Totoro is the finest children's film ever made, and sits alongside Nausicaa as Hayao Miyazaki's best directoral film. In addition to being the most beloved family movie in Japan, Totoro has become a favorite in America through videotapes and the occasional theatrical screening.
I have only seen this movie in a theatre once, two years ago at the venerable Oak Street Cinema (I'm headed there after this post to watch Citizen Kane tonight). The audience was perfectly mixed between children, parents and grandparents. Every person was enraptured from beginning to end.
With Totoro, Miyazaki captures the essense of childhood with an emotional honesty and a wistful nostalgia. This is essentially a movie about his own childhood in the 1950's; the family home in the movie is modeled after the house he grew up in, and his mother battled serious illness for many years (much like the mother in the film).
The only person who dealt with children as honestly as Miyazaki is Charles Shultz. Both tell stories that are endlessly funny, full of wit and imagination, yet also confront doubt, fear, sadness and loss. Children inhabit their own world, one of spirits and magic and exploration; a world where a giant, furry Catbus makes the wind blow, and small Totoros collect acorns and live in a sacred tree. Adults deal in facts, in rationality, in "the real world." They cannot see Totoros or Soot Sprites. Only the children can, because they have not learned to close their eyes to the wonders of life.
My Neighbor Totoro is so perfectly paced, so casual, so willing to pause and quietly reflect. This is the polar opposite to American animation, and Disney in particular, which is loud, obnoxious, over-crowded, over-hurried, drowned in cheap melodrama and stifling "moral lessons." Pauline Kael was right. We are caught in a culture warp. You can keep your Helpless Little Princess videos; leave me alone with the trees and the Catbus.