Is Hayao Miyazaki's magnum opus the greatest animated film of all time?
There's much pow-wowing over which of Hayao Miyazazi's hand-crafted animation masterworks is the one to cherish above all others, and for us, it has to be his deceptively modest 1988 countryside caper, My Neighbour Totoro, about the various stresses of childhood and the difficulty of geographic dislocation. Yet watching the film again not only cements its reputation as Miyazaki's most ebullient and emotionally incisive achievement to date, but as perhaps one of greatest animated feature films ever made.
The film operates on two very distinctive yet highly compatible levels. An apparently happy-go-lucky father sets up a new home with his two roistering, knee-high daughters who take great glee in frolicking loudly around the plush rural surroundings. It later transpires that their mother is convalescing in a nearby hospital, and that smiles and joy may be masking a deep sense of trepidation and sadness.
Miyazaki expounds poetically on the safety mechanisms of the mind, proposing that in times of great mental pressure, the very young tend to retreat into fantasy. Cue the entrance of a rotund, wide-eyed and entirely benign rabbit-like creature named Totoro who appears from a nearby woodland and steps in to help the girls through this traumatic period.
Unlike the output of Disney or their CG adjunct, Pixar, My Neighbour Totoro often strays into purely abstract territory. Indeed, it's not a story which possesses a traditional beginning, middle and end, instead winding along with a series of whimsical episodes, each capturing primal emotions that the young protagonists can't quite comprehend. Structurally, the film is perfectly imperfect, a mussy collage of fleeting moments and feelings that coalesce into a majestic, finely-honed portrait of a child's eccentric thought processes.
Aside from the human characters, My Neighbour Totoro also offers a very simple celebration of nature and the wonderment that comes from exploring woodlands, wandering through fields and really examining the flora and fauna that we take for granted. It's an inquisitive film that's about inquisitiveness, and you'd be wildly mistaken to dismiss it as a piece of fur-lined kiddie fodder. Plus the jolly theme song that plays over the closing credits is less an earworm, more a face-hugging succubus with acid for blood.
Is this the greatest animated film of all time?
Yes. Yes it is.
Perfect. Simple as.