Disney has always been seen as the juggernaut of kids’ animation. Walt Disney’s studio evolved into what became one of the wealthiest global corporations in the world, and is undeniably the most influential business in children’s media. For decades, adorable talking animals and animated fairy tales have populated our cinemas and screens, and your childhood nostalgia, like mine, is probably infected with a bit of that ol’ “Disney magic.” But is Disney truly worthy of its throne? The first movie that really grabbed me as a kid was Spirited Away. In spite of years of soaking up cheesy Disney songs and playing with Mulan dolls, I had never been blown away by a movie until I watched Studio Ghibli’s magnum opus. I was absolutely spell-bound. The movie had affected my imagination and childhood like no other film before, and I continued to line up eagerly to see the latest installments of the Ghibli films in later life. But what is it about a Ghibli film that makes it so special and so indelible?
As a child, I thought that Ghibli films seemed magical, largely due to their stunning visuals. Indeed, every landscape, sunset and ocean are achingly gorgeous. Each frame in a Ghibli film is a work of art. Pause a Ghibli film at any point and you will see the sheer amount of detail interwoven in a single frame. From the busy, beautiful cityscapes in Howl’s Moving Castle to the blissful scenes of rural Japan in My Neighbor Totoro, each film presents a visual feast for the eyes. The studio has typically opted for hand-drawn animation in most of their feature films, lending them a more traditional feeling, whereas Disney animators have continuously tried to outdo the aesthetic quality of their previous films. Advances in animation software have allowed Disney to create movies with a more polished, smoother finish. And it shows – compare the arguably stiff 2D aesthetics of 101 Dalmatians to the much more fluid animation of their latest blockbuster, Moana. Still, this does not mean that their visuals have gotten better, merely that they appear more dimensional and, dare I say it, realistic. Yes, Disney movies are pleasing to watch. The palette of bright colors appeals to little kids. But in terms of art, they are absolutely obliterated by Studio Ghibli’s prowess.
There is a flourish in every single Studio Ghibli film that Disney misses. Disney films are heart-warming, there’s no doubt about that. No matter how much you sob your heart out, you just know there’s a happy ending in sight. The films are sweet and simple, the plots easy to follow, the dilemmas faced by the characters all very familiar. Studio Ghibli has always delved deeper, and delivered films of intense emotion, featuring loss, death and even utter despair. They present rich narratives, story lines embellished with powerful messages of hope and bravery. Spirited Away, for example, is a beautiful kid’s film – but it is also utterly chilling and nail-bitingly intense. Where Studio Ghibli’s stories have always been original, Disney keeps returning to live action reboots and lackluster sequels of hits like Cars. The studio still relies on their tried-and- tested plot formulas (underdog saves the day…) and have always used quirky pop songs as ammunition against an otherwise dull story. But in this battle for best narrative, Studio Ghibli pulls the most punches.
I often think about the dilemmas of raising children in this heavily consumer-driven culture that still has the tendency of enforcing gender stereotypes on young people. I think about what kind of lessons we need to instill in our daughters – lessons of courage, independence, to never be inhibited by the restrictions imposed on your life. And I feel that Studio Ghibli paint a majestic portrait of these values, dramatized through bold and imaginative young heroines. Strong female leads have definitely been absent from Disney’s oeuvre. Throughout the studio’s legacy, female characters have mostly been princesses or secondary characters. Whilst Disney have tried to break away from the typical ditsy Disney princess prototype in recent years with the release of films like Brave and Tangled, Studio Ghibli have continuously exhibited fierce young women in their starring roles. In Studio Ghibli films, the girls are the heroes. The female characters are brave, inventive and intelligent. They overcome intense battles and challenges, must use their initiative and display great courage in their adventures. They are fighters, warriors and nurturers. Usually, film studios are reluctant to use female leads, believing them to be less commercially successful than those with male leads. Studio Ghibli’s success refuted this idea.
That’s not to say that Disney have not produced classics. I’ll bet that just about everyone has seen The Lion King at some point in their life, and their earliest studio creations (Bambi, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, to name a few) remain utterly timeless. But am I the only one thinking that, in spite of all their wealth and all the enhancements in animation these days, Disney no longer makes outstanding films? Quite honestly, I feel a sense of dismay when I am forced to watch the trailers of kids’ movies these days. Instead of high quality cinema, soaked in fantasy and clearly crafted by a team of creative thinkers, kids are being served unimaginative drivel that the corporation knows will nevertheless, generate a handsome profit. Perhaps Disney were once the pioneers in children’s animation. But, in my eyes, Studio Ghibli will always reign supreme.
Contributed by Katie Abbott