I know I will get a lot of flak for this, but I just watched My Neighbor Totoro and honestly do not think it is a very good movie. Hayao Miyazaki excels at creating beautiful, rich and enthralling fantasy settings that beg exploration. He does not, however, excel at actually exploring them.
When you look at the plot of of the film you will soon realize it is basically an hour and twenty minutes of pure exposition. Nothing ever actually happens, there is no story arc, and none of the characters undergo any change. We establish the loving father with his sickly wife and two energetic and curious daughters, the friendly village inhabited by the grandmother-like figure and her shy son, and the nearby magical forest full of wonderful critters such as Totoro himself. Once everything is nicely set up and ready… the movie ends.
There is no obstacle or challenge for our characters – one would think adjusting to the new house or the mother’s health problems create lots of potential, but they never call our heroes to any sort of action, aside from Mei’s ultimately inconsequential disappearance. This leads me to my main gripe – there is no change and any attempt at one is completely reverted back to its starting point by the end. The best example is the sudden news of the mother’s worsening health, which acts as a temporary motivator for Mei, only to be undone and disregarded in the last 30 seconds. “Oh no, mother is gravely ill! Oh wait, no she’s not. The End.”
Same goes for the characters, who also lack any sort of development. Take, for example, the old grandmother; early in the film she mentions that she used to be able to see spirits when she was younger, much like the two girls, hinting there is more to her than meets the eye. But this wonderful chance for interesting characterization is wasted – the viewer is left hanging waiting for further elaboration that never comes. And that’s not even getting into the titular Totoro himself, who is for all intents and purposes a blank slate, serving only to be cute and furry. But hey, you gotta sell plushies somehow, right?
Now I am not claiming all movies must necessarily have a clear story arc or follow the hero myth; they can be an experience for one to soak in. And I do admit My Neighbor Totoro is very beautiful and many of the cinematic scenes, accompanied by a brilliant score, did keep me engaged with a child-like wonder. It’s just that, in the end, it feels somewhat unfulfilling when your fully engaged child-like wonder is so suddenly interrupted by the end credits.