I actually learned a lot I didn't know about My Neighbor Totoro from watching the many bonus features included here. I knew it was a special film for my kids, but in the broader context, it appears to have been a very special film for Miyazaki and company. It was his first film set in a traditional Japan, with characters that weren't embroiled in battles or possessed of any special powers. It was also, as Miyazaki puts it at one point during his interview about the film, a letter to himself as a young boy. The idea of going back in time to the '50s, and to rural Japan, was a bold move at the time that paid off for Miyazaki. Instead of building on his previous films Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky, he decided to make a sweet film that has come to be incredibly influential.
The story of My Neighbor Totoro is centered around two little girls, living in the country with their father, while their tubercular mother recuperates in a nearby hospital. From the minute they move into a small house set into the Japanese countryside, there is magic in the air, literally. Watching dust motes come alive and scuttle through the dark, sliding in and out of cracks in the wall, could have been scary in less capable hands. Miyazaki manages to channel the curiosity and wonder of a child through scenes like this, making everything in My Neighbor Totoro - no matter how outlandish - just another part of the magic. The creatures that the children encounter are all variations on the Totoro from the film's title, a hulking combination between a bear, a cat, and a gorilla. Again, it's the gift of good directing and storytelling that makes My Neighbor Totoro feel like an actual neighbor rather than some wild beast in the woods. There isn't an epic story told here, but the road you travel with Mei and her sister Satsuki is one that kids especially will find entrancing.
The special features include more than just coverage on My Neighbor Totoro; you'll see clips from other Miyazaki films, and some fairly in-depth background on titles like Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Ponyo. The material included that is specific to My Neighbor Totoro is incredible. Interviews with Miyazaki, an extended bonus feature on the historical and place references in the film, and more typical coverage of the voice acting, music, and animation. A full storyboard version of the film is included, which is a real lesson in how animated features come together from concept to screen. A new and even slightly improved version of the original film is enough to justify the purchase of this special edition, but having such a wealth of background material pushes this new release of My Neighbor Totoro completely over the edge. If you have young kids, do them and yourself a favor, and get this film. It does as good a job as any of Miyazaki's later films in creating a surreal but enticing world on screen, and being on Miyazaki 's hot list means being better than 90% of the other stuff out there. This is the definitive version of a truly great children's film.