I watched this movie when I was a kid, and while it never caught my attention as I do other commercial movies, I think it had a quiet and subtle effect on me over the years. Sometimes I think about that film, but I never knew why. So, after watching it again as an adult I realized why this movie stay within me: Totoro is a rare film that manages to capture the essence of a child's emotions and vision without being filtered through the adult's tendency to editorialize it, to insert a moral judgment, or to sugar coat it. Mei's behavior is naked, showing raw happiness as well as anger. Her movements are strong and her voice fierce, she thinks she lives in a world without limitations and not binded by adult's notion of etiquette. Satsuki is at a crossroads between adulthood and what remains of her innocence, we see her anxieties and we identify the world of the movie through her eyes. Totoro's physical characteristic is actually menacing and otherworldly, and our first impression of him (through the girls' eyes) is a natural mix of fear and amazement... the same reaction any human would have when confronting something foreign. But then something magical happens: Totoro moves and behaves just like Mei. We identify with this raw, pure energy of joy and imagination. That Studio Ghibli managed to express this idea visually, through character design, storytelling, and animation, is a rare and special accomplishment. This effect cannot be described during a script meeting with a committee of marketing execs.
A typical American studio would be worried about presenting its main character as frightening, would redesign Totoro as a "cuter" character as a safe strategy, and would certainly make the father more of a one-dimensional, stereotypical "adult" character for dramatic purposes.
But in this movie, we see the background story of the characters by deceptively simple closeup shot of the pebbles in the stream, or the details of the bathtub.
But the most telling moment of the movie is actually early on: when the girls tried to push down the rotting wooden support of the house. At first only playing around, they then gave a serious effort to try to bring it down. But it doesn't fall. Seeing that the support stays, they simply move on. That establishes the tone and the world they inhabit: Life is unpredictable. Adults must learn to expect the worst to happen in order to deal daily with the real world. But the child has not yet fully learned this skill, so through their eyes, we see what we were, and what was important to us, long buried but not forgotten.
Kids should see this movie as an alternative to the shallow mainstream entertainment. Whether they like it or not is irrelevant; its lasting impact is worth more that the toy of the month. Adults should see this movie to re-look at themselves and what they were, who they are now, and what they want to become. It doesn't preach anything, it's a simple story that you will enjoy when you can stop and have time for yourself and for the people you care about.