Well Spirited Away, it looks like you're finally off the hook! I have now seen seven Hayao Miyazaki movies, with widely varying degrees of enjoyment. Princess Mononoke and Porco Rosso are legitimately fantastic films, animation or otherwise. Castle in the Sky is a largely enjoyable movie, bogged down with a weak 3rd act and a bloated run-time. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Howl's Moving Castle both had interesting parts, but were ultimately too scattershot and tedious to be fully enjoyable. And Spirited Away was easily the most overrated and unsatisfying of the whole bunch ... until I saw My Neighbor Totoro.
Now, let me preface. I will say that I probably enjoyed My Neighbor Totoro more than Spirited Away. But I also think that Spirited Away is the more competent film, from a storytelling standpoint. At least Spirited Away has conflict, and threatening situations, and characters that have to face real adversary. My Neighbor Totoro just kind of ... exists. It comes and goes without saying or doing anything of particular note. It has nothing interesting to say.
The Kusakabe family arrives in their new home with unbreakable spirits, but heavy hearts. The mother of the family is in the hospital with a nameless illness. They go through the normal excitement of moving into a new house, but always yearn for the day when their family will be complete once again. Young Satsuki and Mei gape at their new surroundings in complete wonder. What starts out as a relatively normal domestic drama, suddenly turns into quite the fantasy when Mei, the younger of the two girls, stumbles upon a massive sleeping Totoro! Which is basically a giant, furry, rabbit-like forrest spirit. After that, there's really nothing more to talk about. Certainly nothing in the way of conflict.
And that's one of the main problems with this film. Some say it's a blessing, some say it's a curse; but My Neighbor Totoro just doesn't have much in the way of interesting story. There's very little in the way of strife betwixt characters. The worse it gets is a heated conversation between Satsuki and Mei, where Satsuki points out the painfully obvious fact that Mei is acting like an obnoxious brat. Which leads to an equally trivial finale where Mei runs away from home and gets lost. It all feels so inconsequential.
But what does (thankfully) work is the family drama side of things. I wasn't expecting the whole "sick mom" sub-plot to work so well, but it actually does. Even with only a few brief scenes, we really do care about Mrs. Kusakabe's recovery. For once in his life, it would have been fantastic if Miyazaki had a simple, down-to-earth story. But no, gotta throw in that ridicules Cat-Bus, right?!
And here we have another flaw. The more fantastical side of the story is allotted just the right amount of screen-time to make it as awkward as possible. Is the movie going for full-on fantasy? Is it being a realistic drama? No, and no. It's really doing neither of these things. The fantasy elements show up whenever the movie needs a little extra oomph. Which is okay, if the film actually committed to that aspect of the story. But it never does. Right after something preposterous, we're right back to the contrived, but mostly effective domestic drama.
It seems like Miyazaki really wants to cram in his trademark Eastern spirituality, even when the story didn't really lend itself to it. The existence of Forrest Spirits and Soot Spirits feels rather inappropriate for the story. For the most part, I've been able to accept this spirituality as a matter of course. But not in this movie. When Totoro (who does have some pretty adorable moments) and his two little Totoro friends (who are constantly adorable!) show up in the Kusakabe's garden to start growing trees and to fly around on that floating, spinning top thingy - I just had enough. I wasn't entranced. I almost laughed out loud. No, I do not accept this as a supposed "masterpiece" of animated filmmaking. No sir.
And then the Cat-Bus happens. I appreciate the fact that it's a feat of imagination. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. It seems like everybody is enchanted with the Cat-Bus, but I was personally left shaking my head in horror and (much to my chagrin) condescension.
The characters are mostly likable, but they're also fairly flat. As Miyazaki main characters go, Satsuki is pretty solid. Dakota Fanning, who has proved herself time and time again to be an exceptional actress, does all she can with the character. Both Miyazaki, and in turn, Elle Fanning, try really hard to make Mei a lovable character. And by trying really hard, I mean she basically yells all of her lines very enthusiastically. Tim Daly does give a nice supporting performance as Mr. Kusakabe.
The final musical choice in the film is what ultimately pushed me over the edge of actively disliking this movie. So the last scene of the movie features Satsuki and Mei joyfully being flown back home by the exponentially creepy Cat-Bus, with "My Neighbor Totoro (The Ending Song)" playing in the background. During this scene, I came dangerously close to shouting "Nope!" at my screen at an uncomfortably high decibel level.
I've rambled on enough. So, long and short: I didn't like My Neighbor Totoro. But at least I can congratulate it on (somehow) being worse than Spirited Away. In my opinion, that's not an easy achievement to pull off.
"To-to-ro? You're Totoro! ... I bet you're Totoro." 3.5/10