Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ranking the Studio Ghibli films

Today, because you asked (even though you didn't), I'm going to give you my rankings of my favorite Studio Ghibli films. One caveat, I have not seen every film from the studio, particularly those not directed by Hayao Miyazaki, so I won't rank films I haven't seen. So without further ado, here are my favorite Studio Ghibli films in order:

#1 - From Up on Poppy Hill
A surprise top 1 since it's actually directed by Hayao's son Goro who had some uneven work with his adaptation of Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earth Sea. This has stunning animation, voice acting, soundtrack, story, emotions, it's just a perfect film in every way. It's about a girl whose father is presumably lost at sea, the school she attends with its madcap boys clubs, a budding romance, and so much more. Sad, melancholy, funny, sweet, romantic...absolutely my number 1 Ghibli film.

#2 - The Secret World of Arrietty
Based off the classic novel, The Borrowers, this is a perfect re-imagining through the lens of Ghibli. Great character and set designs, wonderful scenic set pieces, comedy, drama, romance, and soft unspoken emotions. Heartwarming, cute, well animated. A classic.

#3 - Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Not technically a Studio Ghibli film as it predates the founding of Ghibli, but it is truly Miyazaki's masterpiece. I finished reading the collected manga that he began at the same time, and to be honest, although the film leaves a lot out, and is somewhat unresolved at the end, it is far superior to the manga and its much longer and more meandering story. This is the story of a world partially overrun by dangerous fungus forests that destroy other life. It's also the story of tribalism and war. It features Miyazaki's greatest heroine, amazing animation (and guest animation by another great one in Hideaki Anno), and the dub features Patrick Stewart in one of his all-time best roles. If this film had another hour or two to really resolve the story it would be far and away my number 1, but even in it's slightly imperfect state, it is an amazing and epic film.

#4 - Howl's Moving Castle
What's not to love about a young woman turned into an old woman to takes up residence with a weird young wizard, a demon flame, and a pumpkin-headed scarecrow in a living castle that walks around the land with doors into different towns? One of the best villains of all time with an amazing redemption and one of his strongest female leads. A beautiful, funny, dreamy, gorgeously animated film. On any other list, this would be number 1, it's just he has so many incredible films.

#5 - Princess Mononoke
This film made Ghibli and Miyazaki household names in the U.S. I actually didn't watch it until after seeing many of his other films. At first blush, I felt it a pale redo of Nausicaa. Needless to say, after my second (and then countless more) viewings my mind has changed. This is an incredible film with excellent voice acting in both the subbed version (Update 6/16/18 - I just re-watched the dubbed version with Claire Danes with my daughter and decided the English voice acting isn't very good even though I thought it was okay at first - definitely watch the subbed version if you can) About the destruction of earth for natural resources, reclaiming feminine power and autonomy, nature overcoming obstacles, the destructiveness of man, and a bit of romance. The more I watch it, the more I get out of it. Still not my top, but worthy of all the praise lavished on it. It's pretty violent and bloody, so not for young ones.

#6 - Kiki's Delivery Service
The Disney dub of this is amazing with Kirsten Dunst and Phil Hartman in the leads. It's so sweet and funny and kind. Great animation, winning characters. Just an all-around treat. Very family friendly. It's about a young witch who gets a job at a bakery doing deliveries in a small town. Yup, that's it! Just totally cute. And her cat played by Phil Hartman!

#7 - Spirited Away
Alongside Princess Mononoke, this is the other big one to make American's aware of Miyazaki. It is an epic-ly scripted and animated tour de force. It captures so much that is quintessentially Miyazaki. It features a girl whose parents go missing in a tunnel when the car stops. As she seeks to find them, she finds herself in a spirit world navigating it's rules in an attempt to free her parents without being lost in it herself. Just like all these, it would be number 1 on any other studio's best of list. 

#8 - Only Yesterday
Probably a surprise choice compared to most of your lists. This one is also directed by someone other than Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli regular Isao Takahata. It's about a young woman, returning to her hometown to help with summer farming as an escape from her city life. It is a reflection on her childhood, her current life, and where she wants to go. It is about where true joy and peace comes from and is sweet, real, and wonderful. Very different animation style than Miyazaki's work but the story is resonant if you're in your 20s or 30s.

#9 - My Neighbor Totoro
"How can you have this so low?" I know you're all asking this, but while it's cute and I love the characters, the plot itself is very slight. I still don't get the "cat bus" which sort of pulls me out of the rest of the film. Our family's favorite line is: "Stupid Bucket!" which we say all the time. Sweet and perfect for the family with some amazing visual set pieces as well as imagery (Totoro in the rain with the umbrella), but just not quite a deep or polished as the ones above. It's about a family whose mother is sick so the two girls and the father are living in a house in the country. The girls stumble upon the magical creatures of the forest who come to their aide when one is lost.

#10 - The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Based on a classical folk tale and directed by Isao Takahata as well, this is the story of a girl born in bamboo, raised by a peasant family, who becomes royalty, and ascends as a Bodhisattva. Wow! The film is so startlingly different than other Ghibli films it's not really fair to compare them. It's well worth a watch, but could be confusing to young ones, and those less familiar with imagery and tales from Japan. 

#11 - Ponyo
Some wonderful humor (just watch Ponyo eat ramen) and a cool take on the story of the little mermaid, it suffers from bland animation compared to many of Miyazaki's other works. I can only describe the animation as less detailed and slightly more bubbly than his other work, so along with very bright primary colors, just didn't have the visual resonance with me.  It's one of the ones I've watched the least, which by no means makes it a poor film, it's better than 99% of the films ever made, just low on this list because of the genius work that came before.

#12 - Castle in the Sky
A fairly complex movie and plot that seemed better served by later movies. This is officially the first Studio Ghibli film and it seems as though much of what was attempted here was improved in later films. Not bad, just not one that's ever really endeared itself to me like the others.

#13 - Whisper of the Heart
I struggled with where to put this as it is not a Hayao Miyazaki nor Isao Takahata directed film and I think that shows. The animation is okay, but not amazing, the plot has some good romance and there are some wonderful scenes, but it's reliance on one song that I shall not name because it plays way too often in the film to the point of being a distracting ear worm, sort of undercuts a lot of it for me. It's about a bookworm girl who tracks down a boy who takes out the same books as her, finds a cat statue (linked to other Ghibli films) and finds a young man who is learning to make violins. It has promise, and is sweet, but not a classic by any stretch.

#14 - When Marnie Was There
This was sort of disappointing, first because the name Marnie is awesome, and second because it just wasn't very good. It's about a kid who meets another kid in a weird house across a lake (or something like that) and it just doesn't ring emotionally true and doesn't seem like a very important film. Nice enough animation, and plenty enjoyable, but I've only watched it once because it just didn't do anything for me.

#15 - The Wind Rises
Clearly, much like Porco Rosso below, this is a film that catered to some very particular interests of Hayao Miyazaki and feels like a labor of love, but that doesn't mean it's terribly interesting to other people. It's about planes and flying (two things I love) and yet it didn't do much for me. Ah well.

#16 - Porco Rosso
A weird flying ace that's a pig. Lots of people love this film, and while it's okay, I'm just not that into it. If I want something animated about animals flying planes, then I'm going to watch Disney's Jungle Book TV show because that plane is EPIC!

Okay, so I guess I've seen most of them! Anyway, what's your ranking? See you in the comments.


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