Had I seen it before: Nope, and I’m relatively unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli work in general, having only seen one other. Check out that review of Spirited Away here.
Year: 1988 for the original film, I watched the Disney dub with Dakota and Elle Fanning that came out in 2004.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Where you can stream it now: HBO Max
What IMDb says: When two girls move to the country to be near their ailing mother, they have adventures with the wondrous forest spirits who live nearby.
Why I picked it: I’ve been meaning to dive into the Studio Ghibli catalog for a long time, but they’ve only become easily streamable quite recently. So, no time like the present.
What I liked: There’s something thrilling about diving into a children’s animated movie without knowing which formulas, themes, and story beats to expect. That’s part of the fun of exploring Studio Ghibli for the first time as an adult. One of the coolest things about My Neighbor Totoro also happens to be one of the biggest differences between it and it’s American counterparts, and that’s the pacing of it. This movie’s only 86 minutes long, and the first 30 minutes are essentially just watching these two sisters play together and explore their world. The Disney version of this is a 3-minute musical number, and our primary conflict is probably introduced before we hit the 10-minute mark. But not Miyazaki. No, Miyazaki has this gift for captivating us with the mundane. He doesn’t have to tell us that their mom is sick until 20 minutes in. He doesn’t have to introduce Totoro until 30 minutes in. Conflict is necessary for story, and yet somehow it’s the very lack of conflict that draws us into this world. Satsuki and Mei have this contagious energy that got me invested. I just wanted to spend more quality time with these characters, and that’s what kept me watching moreso than any desire to see where the plot goes.
What I didn’t like: While I wouldn’t sacrifice any of those early scenes where I’m simply spending time with the characters, the climax does feel a little bit rushed. The escalation of stakes feels abrupt, but one could argue that’s just how real life works too. I don’t see this as Miyazaki’s fault so much as the downside of insisting that animated children’s movie’s have to be short. This was one of Ghibli’s earliest films, and perhaps Miyazaki didn’t yet have the reputation he needed to get a bigger budget for a longer movie. One of the most common recommendations I’ve heard when asking people their Studio Ghibli opinions is Princess Mononoke, which runs for 2 hours and 17 minutes. So the fact that the ending here felt a little flat for me didn’t leave thinking “Oh, My Neighbor Totoro is disappointing” it simply left me thinking “I can’t wait to see what Miyazaki is capable of when he’s not constrained by time.” Again, one of his greatest gifts is his ability to just let a story unfold slowly and organically, and while you certainly see that here, the 86 minute runtime feels like it’s keeping Miyazaki from his full potential.
Will I watch it again: I probably will. As much as I love going into these movies knowing as little as possible about what to expect, I’m sure I can take even more away from them on a re-watch.
Who would enjoy it: I think this is a really good one for people who enjoy more character driven stories, and aren’t overly concerned with how much drama is happening. If you like the idea of a film that feels calm and relaxing rather than a roller coaster ride into the unknown (pun intended), My Neighbor Totoro is just the ticket.