Without question, my favorite children's movie is "My Neighbor Totoro". The movie was originally released in Japan in 1988 as a double feature with "Grave of the Fireflies" (a contrasting animated film about WWII). Although FOX released a dub of the film in 1993, the movie never reached theaters in America, so it never enjoyed the kind of audience a mainstream Disney film usually attains. Disney released a redubbed version starring Elle and Dakota Fanning. Both are good, supposedly, though most consider the older FOX dub as the better of the two (I can confirm this, so when you set out to get a copy of this movie [something you will undoubtedly do after reading this entry], get the FOX version).
LAEvaside: I am about to delve into eastern animation, known to most as "anime". Before reading any further, note the following: I enjoy anime (it's one of my indulgences), but I'm not blind to the fact that the majority of anime has little to no artistic worth. However, that still leaves the minority to be properly addressed, which is where we will now pick up. [/laevaside]
Although Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are often compared to Walt Disney and The Walt Disney Company, respectively, this comparison only brings into consideration the level of success both have attained on a surface level. Having watched many Ghibli films and many Disney films, I can say without a doubt that films from Studio Ghibli (those headed by Miyazaki in particular) are far superior to those from Disney. In fact, if you're only accustomed to western animation, Miyazaki's films (as well as certain other anime films) will likely change your outlook on animation completely; the difference is very pronounced.
This is not to say that earlier Disney films are completely without merit (I say "earlier" because I can't stand the more recent computer-animated films), as the animation is good, there are often some fairly entertaining musical numbers, and they're definitely entertaining from a child's perspective (and, to some extent, from an adult's perspective). A few Disney films are childhood favorites of mine. However, let's look at "My Neighbor Totoro" and see why and how it outstrips every Disney film to date:
First and foremost, there are no evil forces. There are no villains. There are no fight scenes. Conflicts are far more typical; illness is the main problem. Since when do characters get sick in Disney films? The two girls, Mei and Satsuki, are also convincingly normal; there's nothing particularly strange or special about them. In contrast to most western animated films, which often contain family conflict, the family unit is very strong; the girls have a kind, loving mother and a strong, supportive father. As for the magical creatures present, well... I don't want to give away too much, but they're far more enchanting than anything Disney could ever manage to come up with. I'm 17, and I still wish I could meet a Totoro. As for animation, the watercolor backdrops and brief natural interludes are a joy to take in throughout the film.
Finally, the music is very fitting and very good, courtesy of Joe Hisaishi. Here are a couple numbers I particularly like: Tonari no Totoro and Path of the Wind.
A brief aside: Western animation is just about always directed toward children. When you think "animated" in America, you immediately think "for children". As I noted earlier, "Grave of the Fireflies" (directed by Isao Takahata) is an anime film about WWII. It's extremely serious (not to mention depressing). A few other examples of animated films that target an older audience (note that these aren't necessarily good movies by my appraisal): "Princess Mononoke", "Akira", "Ghost in the Shell". Animation *is* capable of encapsuling more mature themes, contrary to popular Western belief. As for other good children's movies from Ghibli, "Kiki's Delivery Serice" is wonderful (almost as good as "My Neighbor Totoro").
Back to the main point of this thread- "My Neighbor Totoro"! I understand that most of my readers are not children; in fact, I'm fairly sure that most of you are adults. However, if you haven't seen "My Neighbor Totoro", do so, especially if you happen to have a rough day; I guarantee that this film is nothing short of fantastic and fit for people of any age, so long as life hasn't completely defeated the child in you. To quote Robert Ebert: "Whenever I watch it, I smile, and smile, and smile."
LAEvaside: Jess, you better watch this film! There's one character in particular that you're sure to just love~ [/laevaside]