Like most animated films Totoro's defies the predictable logic and physics of reality, but animation impressario Hayao Miyazaki also escapes the bipolar rhythms that automate Pixar and Disney's finest stories.
If you prefer your animated tales populated by heroes (toy cowboys, trash compactors, septuagenarian widowers) who adulate their damsels as they save the day, you'll be disappointed by the lack of yahoos. If you prefer your fairy tales (a pun on male fantasy)'s dowager princesses besieged by witches, dragons and aristotelean story arcs who inadvertently transform damsels into housewives, brace yourself to succumb to ennui.
It opens with a doting, bookish father transplanting himself and his two adorable children, roly-poly Mei (the curious, courageous toddler) and svelte Satsuki (the conscientious and dutiful eldest), to a verdant farming village. A move ostensibly to bring them nearer to their endearing mother, who is bedridden in a neighboring hospice gracefully enduring an unnamed malady.
Even when he is preoccupied with work, the father is attuned to the sensitivities of his girls as well as the natural order of things, including the metaphysical. There are no slapstick misunderstandings here.
Through the providence of infantile curiosity, Mei stumbles upon Totoro and his kindred cohorts who are presumed to be wood spirits, which is to say they nap, avoid adults, and conjure illusions (e.g. invisibility, flight, hail cat buses). They speak the language of animals: meanings and intentions are grasped without exposition-- wonder of wonders.
As magical beings, their incantatory dancing spurs the overnight growth of saplings into hundred year old trees and by mounting a whirling top, as if it were a broomstick, they soar on the currents of midsummer nights. But the real magic is conjured by simple, everyday gestures. Twice an ordinary umbrella becomes the catalyst for transforming a coy encounter into an enriched fellowship. To ward off spooks in their new home, father summons the most effective magic of all: laughter.
Through the course of things a plot does emerge. Mei gets lost attempting a headstrong trek to visit her mother, who's condition may have taken a turn for the worse. Alluding to Cinderella, her shoe is found by a villager, but she is not. It is a quietly mortifying discovery.
In a preamble on the DVD release Pixar honcho John Lassetar pays homage to Totoro, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. One wishes he would use his influence to adopt more of their convention-defying conventions, especially pertaining to heroines.