Now to be fair, let me point out what is right with this film.
1. The animation. For being a 1980's anime, it feels very new. The water is crisply drawn, everything looks clean, even old VHS copies of the film look HD ready. It doesn't feel like a 1988 film, and that's very hard to accomplish in just about all forms of animation.
2. Kanta starts the film off as one of the few realistic characters. He litterally pops out of nowhere to scream at the girls that their new home is haunted.
3. There is a great attention to detail. Nearly everything in this movie has a real life counterpart.
But the things that work for the film are also shining examples of what is wrong with most people who get deadly violent over their love of Ghibli.
Yes, the animation is artsy and well done. You can practically smell the sweat of the animator who worked 48 hours straight on that tree tunnel in some of these segments, but that's all these films are. Paintings. While you're distracted by the imagery, you might not notice that this film is littered with plot holes and slow writing. And yet just in your reading this, I can already feel your rage if you are a Ghibli fan.
I have seen Ghibli fans between ages 15 and 40 haul off and beat someone publicly if they dared to say they didn't like a Miyazaki film, and yet if anybody else *COUGH Toei COUGH* tried to do this exact same script, with the exact same pacing, you'd either say the film is "not bad" or you'd be calling for the head of the director. But let's get on with the film.
The plot of the film centers around 10 year old Satsuki and 4 year old Mei, so much so that I'm a little surprised Totoro takes the film's title at all. We don't even see Totoro until 31 minutes, 54 seconds into the feature, and then after that, he's hardly ever seen. Why not call the movie "Satsuki and Mei" or "Sisters of the rural yokai" or "Shut up, Mei" or litterally anything other than "My Neighbor Totoro" as Totoro is almost never seen or mentioned? Anyway.
The two girls move with their father to a run down old house in a rural country area of Japan in the 1950's. There's a big discrepancy with the timeline, as some of the calendars point to it being May of 1952 and August of 1958, yet nobody ages. This kind of is one of the reasons why people believe there is a much more heavy death undertone to the film. Some say Totoro is a "god of death" or that the town is full of dead people, but these are all urban myths. However, the goat having extra teeth is unsettling, but that was more of an artistic glitch than a sign of anything else. Though the abundance of yokai (spirits) is unsettling, but I digress.
The house is overrun with soot mites/yokai and apparently has no locks, because the town "granny" is able to come and go as she pleases. Everyone knows each other, there is no privacy here. The entire premise is that the girls are in this dirty old house, so they can be close to their mom while she recovers from illness at a hospital. What type of illness? Well, the script writers care so little about her that they never even bring it up. All we know is that she gets a cold on top of "chick disease" three quarters of the film in, and it almost kills her.
The house like I said, is overrun with filthy soot mites, which help in destroying the already seedy home, proving that the girls' father has no idea what a real estate agent is. The girls show the soot mites that they are not bad people, so the soot mites leave with little explanation. After the soot mites are the Totoro, which come in three sizes. These rabbit-like yokai make creepy sounds and like the soot mites, can only be seen by children. And this leads me to one giant plot hole.
All of the adults know about these magical creatures.
NONE of them explain them.
It's just "Oh, you saw the yokai because you're a kid. Meh." and that's it. We're done. No stories of the past, no explanations, just "meh". Considering this movie is an hour and a half long, a backstory might have been nice, especially since the parents of the girls both talk openly about having seen these creatures when they were Satsuki's age.
Instead, we get long winded segments of the adults taaaaalking creeeepy..... and slow... then really really LOUD FOR NO REASON followed either by a long pause or a creepy HA HA HA.... HA HA forced laugh out of nowhere.
Like, I can get why this happens in the bath scene (I'm getting to that) because it serves a point. The father (I'm getting to him) can hear the soot mites, but can't see them. So he tells the girls that when he was younger, he was taught to laugh loudly and the yokai will leave you alone. See? That's a point that works with the story.
But the entire town does this. All... the... time, and none of them are afraid of the yokai, so it makes no sense, draws out the film, and looks really, really creepy.
And speaking of creepy, the bath scene really creeped me out.
Look, I get it. In Japan, it's commonplace for families to bathe together. Fine. But WHYEEE do I need to see that?? It didn't need to happen. I don't need to see Satsuki or Mei nude ever, especially not with their dad! Call it a "Western mentality" if it helps you sleep at night, but there is no excuse and no need to have this segment at all. AT. ALL.
But we don't stop there. While it's the only time the kids are seen without clothes, the rest of the film, we can't seem to make it more than a few minutes without some creepy shot of Satsuki at waist level or Mei with her legs open. In fact, the last part even has it's own plushie. Google it, I'm not making this up. It's really disgusting, STOP IT!! The creepy, PedoBear visuals of the girls ~ specifically four year old Mei ~ mar the film's integrity and should not have been drawn.
And in case that's not a big enough creep-out, the mouths are sure to give you nightmares.
Every other character is drawn like they are forcing out a cry or a scream, with Big/King Totoro being no exception. When his mouth is closed, he's not really so bad, but as soon as that giant mouth gapes open, it just looks hideous. But I forgive him, because he's a special creature. But how do you explain the townspeople looking like their mouths are trying to crowd out their faces? Add to that the moldy rat way the soot mites are drawn just sent the wrong kind of chills down my spine.
The real main characters, Satsuki and Mei, are meant to look and feel like real sisters, and in most scenes, this is accomplished.. but oh.. my.. Totoro. I just want to punt-kick little Mei across the field. Mei is obnoxious. I get that she's a toddler and most toddlers are annoying, but she takes it to a headache inducing level. Her crying fits are hell on the ears no matter which dub you're sitting through, and her precocious nature sometimes comes across as forceful. On the flip side, Satsuki behaves more like what you would expect of a tween in a Miyazaki film. She is mature, asks the questions somebody should, and outside of a random shouting match with Mei, is actually a quiet, easier on the ears child.
The adults are pretty well useless, except for "Granny". I get that Satsuki and Mei's father works all day across town, but he's just clueless and oblivious to so much of what's going on around him that I don't think he notices that he just left a ten year old in charge of a four year old for 18 hours a day, or the fact that the 10 year old is in school full time, but still has to find daycare ALONE for her sister! Simply put, there's a difference between trusting your obviously more mature tween, and just overall being a negligent parent. Guess which side of the fence we're on?
Just to illustrate why I'm not big on the adults, there's a scene that really got me, where Mei goes missing, and a little girl's sandal is found in the river. Now obviously, everyone is thinking that if this is Mei's sandal, that she has likely drowned. But when Satsuki sees the sandal, she breathes a sigh of relief and says "That's not Mei's." Well good that Mei isn't dead yet, but then the crowd of grown adults who found the sandal are just "oh, well never mind" and we never explore that sandal again. What if that shoe belongs to someone else's lost toddler?? What if there's another toddler gone missing and while you're about to toss that shoe over your shoulder, that kid is drowning?? HELLO?? This plot point is just picked up and dropped with no further explanation.
Oh, and I just want to point this out, at the 45 minute mark, Kanta's mother punches him in the head for losing his umbrella. But then Satsuki arrives to return the umbrella, revealing he never lost it, he gave it to her as a little, tween gentleman. Does his mother apologize? Nope. Is anybody called about her punching her 10 year old on the top of his head? Nope. We just act like this isn't a thing. This is lazy writing, folks!
We have a few segments where Totoro appears to help the girls reunite with their negligent parents, or have a brief adventure in the middle of the night, but Totoro's involvement is almost non existent, with a bulk of the film focusing on the day to day life of this rural little village. If you took out the long pauses and the unnecessary shots of the underprivileged town, you could easily cut the film down to around 45 minutes.
I can't say I understand just what magic was used to make people believe that this was a suitable film for kindergartners. My Neighbor Totoro is unsettling, inappropriate and judging by the trailers and ads worldwide, very misleading. This is not a sunshiny, whimsical adventure with a giant bunny creature, it's instead a sleepy, creepy story of two little girls waiting for their mom to come home.