Every Friday night, our family snuggles up on the couch with pizza, popcorn, and ice cream to watch a movie. It’s our way of sliding into home plate after the typical chaotic week of all of the activities in all of the places at all of the times. The only problem is, after years of this tradition, it feels like we’ve run out of quality films to watch with our children. I imagine many of you might be in the same situation, especially if, like me, your family runs from preschool to preteen.
But what if I told you that there’s an obscure little pocket of beautiful, artistic children’s films that uphold kindness and virtue, but leave out sexuality and violence? That these films cherish the innocence and magic of childhood and uphold the safety of family?
Would you be as excited as I was to discover these masterpieces? I’m so glad I get to introduce you to the world of Studio Ghibli.
One of the things I love about these movies is that the plot focuses more on character development than the overcoming of an antagonist. Usually the “villian” per say is a difficult life circumstances, or an uncertain developmental hurdle. Even in the films with a true villain, there is usually understanding instead of defeat. My children, who have very few villains in their lives (mostly myself when I deprive them of something they want), identify so much with these characters, as their fears, experiences, and feelings are much the same.
Now, a quick caveat before our adventure begins. Not all of the Ghibli films were created or intended for children. Some are very explicit in things such as violence and romantic relationships, and Common Sense Media has done an excellent job parsing out these specific categories. But I would love to tell you about my four favorites, which are weird and wonderful in all the best ways.
My Neighbor Totoro
Based on the book by Tsugiko Kubo, this movie is the most common gateway into the world of Ghibli. You may have seen a Totoro stuffed animal at a local bookstore, or some weird looking cat-bus thing on a t-shirt. It’s the classic most are familiar with, and for good reason.
This sweet story follows two sisters that have moved to the Japanese countryside with their father. Their mother is back in the city, recovering from a chronic illness. As the girls grapple with the uncertainty of this new place and the ever-present worry over their mother, strange things begin to happen. Magical soot-sprites in the house. Small little troll-goblin things running through the garden. And then, most of all, this friendly, giant troll/bear/enigmatic otter/raccoon thing named Totoro that sleeps in a massive camphor tree on the property. Totoro accompanies the girls on an adventure into their fears and uncertainties, and operates as a calming, whimsical, protective presence in their lives. I especially love the affection that exists within the community; the neighbors and parents working together for the safety of the children, and the children recognizing and honoring that.
In this re-telling of The Little Mermaid, you get all the story without the teenage angst and romance. Ponyo’s (the little mermaid character) rebellion is born more out of childish curiosity than hormonal melodrama, with no curses or sea-witch pacts required.
Ponyo, a “goldfish princess” meets a boy named Sosuke, developing a deep, abiding, innocent affection for him. Her father, out of protectiveness, of course tries to prevent her from leaving, but her escape creates an even greater problem: she spills magical elixirs that upset the balance of the ocean itself. Ponyo’s parents work together to restore balance, meanwhile Sosuke’s parents work together to fix the tension in their own lives. My favorite random tidbit about this movie is that the secondary characters are all elderly women in an assisted living facility (Betty White voiced the ringleader, Yoshie). The tenderness and affection the children and elderly have for each other in this movie is the dearest thing.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
This one is my 11 year old daughter’s favorite, and understandably so. Kiki is a young witch who, at 13 years of age, is ready to set off on her first independent adventure. (If “witch” is off-putting, the only existence of magic you’ll see is her ability to fly on a broom. No spells, potions, hexes, or cauldrons).
Kiki travels to a foreign city and quickly finds opportunities to help those around her. She eventually establishes a delivery service, serving the community by running errands, delivering baked goods, and serving those in need. She begins losing her flying powers, but through bravery and extraordinary kindness, is able to regain them in order to save a friend from great danger.
The Secret World of Arrietty
I admit, I’ve saved my very favorite for last. Arrietty is based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series and is just about as delightful and beautiful as a film can be. The animation absolutely shimmers at times, and the whole film is enveloped in a lush Celtic soundtrack that’s enough to make anyone swoon.
Arrietty lives with her parents under a large, historic home in the countryside. This miniature family “borrows” only what they need to live from the house, escaping notice for generations. Their suspected presence is venerated by the family that lives there, but the housekeeper has much less affection for these tiny little “thieves.” Arrietty forms an unlikely friendship with a human boy named Shawn, who has been sent to the family home to gain strength from a chronic illness. Their mutual curiosity begins their friendship, but it’s their sense of loyalty and love towards their own families that seals their abiding bond. I love not only the aesthetics of this film, but the honor it shows to the family unit. Neither parent is perfect, but the family shows each other grace and forgiveness as they work together to preserve the life they’ve built.
I hope you are able to enjoy these movies with your family. They’re certainly different from your typical western movies, but they’ve become staples in our home over the years. We’ve branched into a few of the other Ghibli films as our children have aged, but again, read the reviews to decide what is right and appropriate for your family. They’ve been a delightful springboard into imagination, which is the hallmark of a good film to me.
In addition to the Ghibli films, also take a look at the work of Irish filmmaker, Tomm Moore. Our favorite, Song of the Sea, is featured in a previous Story Warren Review here.