Sam Brooks, a lifelong Studio Ghibli fan, presents a guide to the Japanese studio’s animated films, including which ones to show your kids when.
Just heard ‘Let It Go’ for the billionth time? Sick of those class-traitor dogs that make up the cast of Paw Patrol? Look no further than the delightful films of Studio Ghibli. They’re the perfect thing to watch with your kids – they’ll love them, and you won’t feel like your brain is turning into a delicately-kneaded mush by watching them.
While all the films are kid-appropriate, delightful animated romps, some are definitely more appropriate for some ages than others. The post-apocalyptic one about saving bugs from an ancient weapon? Maybe wait until they can add and subtract numbers before adding and subtracting bugs. But the one about a jellyfish-girl finding a new friendship on land? Yeah, so long as your kids have basic shape recognition, they’ll be fine.
Now that they’re all available on Netflix (with one exception, covered below), I’ve assembled a guide to what films are appropriate to show your kids and when. Look, you can’t go wrong with any of these films. While there are definitely some top-tier Ghibli films and others that are are less essential, they’re all pretty much a good time. There are no true stinkers among the 21-strong bunch.
Your mileage here may vary, of course, as may the mileage of your children. These are suggestions based on my own knowledge of these films, but you know your kids much better than I do. I’ve linked the trailers to give you a bit more idea of what the films are like and help you choose accordingly. Happy Ghibling!
Note: These films are available in both English and their native Japanese, with subtitles and closed captioning for both.
What is it? Easily the studio’s most sentimental and cutesy film, Ponyo is Ghibli genius Hayao Miyazaki’s (very loose) adaptation of The Little Mermaid, focusing on Ponyo, a fish-type creature who accidentally gets captured by a trawler and befriends a young boy on land.
Why this age? It’s very easy to watch, and if your kids aren’t quite into watching entire films yet (understandable, frankly) then the bright colours and revolutionary water animation will be enough to hook them in. There’s also nothing especially upsetting or intense about Ponyo, it’s pleasant as all heck.
What is it? Probably the best-known Ghibli film after Spirited Away, this one focuses on two girls who move to a remote country town because of their mother’s illness. They befriend the spirits who live in the air, including a big bear-like creature named Totoro. Also? Cat-bus.
Why this age? Totoro is among the gentlest of Ghibli films, while still being the one that speaks most to the specific anxieties of being a child. It’s also very short (a swift 88 minutes) so they won’t lose interest. Warning: Your child will want a Totoro of their very own after this.
What is it? Trainee witch Kiki leaves home with her cat Jiji, who she can understand perfectly, and her broomstick, which she uses to deliver goods for the titular delivery service.
Why this age? It’s an incredibly straightforward story, with no upsetting content, and a positive message – it’s all about Kiki regaining her confidence in her own skills. As an adult, I find it uplifting and chill. As a kid, I found it revelatory.
What is it? Studio Ghibli adapts Mary Horton’s The Borrowers, with none of the problematic racism of the ’90s film and about five times as much charm. You’ll be seeing that word ‘charm’ a lot: these films have charm in the classical sense of the word – actual charm that enthrals you with its depth rather than deceives you with its shallowness.
Why this age? It’s about the kindness we need to show to other people. You are never too young to learn about that (or too old!). It’s also a light way to introduce children to inventive animation, rather than getting stuck into appreciating the Western ghetto of CGI animation.
What is it? This is probably the most famous Ghibli film, and the one that brought the studio to international, mainstream recognition. A family takes the wrong turn on their way home, and the daughter, Chihiro, has to go on an adventure filled with wild, wondrous and wacky creatures to save them.
Why this age? It’s probably the most accessible after Totoro, losing a little bit of that film’s charm for a little bit more plot. It’s also where the studio hews closest to Disney’s individualistic, hero-driven narratives, so it’s an easy shift from the films your kids might be used to. While the film is surprisingly thematically complex, it’s also an expansive world featuring some of Ghibli’s most inventive, exciting designs.
What is it? A fantasy about a young girl who can talk to cats, and who winds up being inducted into the Cat Kingdom after saving what she thinks is a street cat from being hit by a truck.
Why this age? It’s pure escapism, but is not quite as immediately engrossing as some of the other Studio Ghibli films. It works best for someone who is already familiar with the house style, so to speak.
What is it? A series of vignettes about the Yamadas, a traditional, non-exceptional Japanese family. It’s notably done in comic strip style, rather than anime style, in contrast to pretty much every other Ghibli film.
Why this age? It’s a little bit more grounded and realistic than most of these films, despite the fairly non-traditional style. Expect a lot of “that’s a lot like you, [parental/guardian figure]” from your chosen child.
What is it? This one is set in ’60s Japan, and follows a girl who teams up with a fellow student in her boarding house to clean up the school clubhouse, only to find out that a businessman intends to demolish the building. They persuade him to reconsider, with hi-jinks aplenty.
Why this age? It’s probably fine for the younger kids, but it’s slightly more mundane a conceit than the others in this bracket, and probably won’t hold their interest for very long. Remember Now and Then, when Christina Ricci grows up into Rosie O’Donnell? It has a similar vibe to that.
What is it? Maybe the most underrated of the top-tier Ghiblis, it’s about a young boy and girl in the late 19th century attempting to keep a magic crystal from the military, while searching for the titular floating castle. Warning: Steampunk aplenty.
Why this age? I actually don’t think there’s ever a right age to introduce your child to the world of steampunk, but the sooner they’re inoculated against its horrors, the better. In all seriousness, Castle in the Sky has just the right amount of plot for a kid to follow without feeling overwhelmed, and it’s as expansive and riotously appealing as the best of Ghibli.
What is it? An Italian WW1 ex-fighter pilot now lives as a freelance bounty hunter chasing air pirates above the Adriatic Sea. Also? He’s an anthropomorphic pig, thanks to a curse, and is now known as Porco Rosso.
Why this age? I don’t think there’s a wrong age to watch a film about an anthropomorphic pig bounty hunter, but this feels like an opportune time to do it. It’s also a nice way to introduce a kid to Ye Olde Hollywood, if you want to get them on the road to appreciating Casablanca later in life.
What is it? A bunch of tanuki (Japanese raccoon-dogs, like Tom Nook in Animal Crossing) rise up against real estate tycoons.
Why this age? Because this is the age people should be learning about the blight of real estate development on our local raccoon-dog populations. Or because it’s pretty silly, but maybe a bit too stressful for the younger ones. Take your pick.
What is it? A 14 year old girl looks through all the checkout cards in her library books (you will have to explain this to your child; see also: landlines, what outside looks like) and finds that they’ve all previously been checked out by the same person. A cute romance ensues.
Why this age? Its a light-hearted, sweet, believable teenage romance that will serve as a great counterpoint to some of the weird, gaslight-y relationships that feature so heavily in the films made by a company that rhymes with Pissknee.
What is it? A revamped, retold version of Japanese fairytale ‘Tales of the Bamboo Cutter’, it’s about a girl who sprouts from an enchanted bamboo groove, as one does, and the adopted parents who raise her, taking her away from the grove to become a “proper woman”. It’s notable for being the last film of Isao Takahata, the other big Studio Ghibli director, and for its calligraphic, watercolour style.
Why this age? Nothing too heavy or stressful, and the style is different enough from the rest of Ghibli’s output to be interesting but not so different that it’s off-putting.
What is it? As of this writing, it’s the latest Ghibli film. It’s about the friendship between two girls, Anna and Marnie. Anna comes across a quiet mansion where Marnie lives, and as their friendship blooms, Marnie asks that Anna promise to keep their secrets from everybody.
Why this age? It’s a bit sadder, and the plot is a bit more complicated. Still, it’s a film about a female friendship (albeit a bit obliquely) and there’s not nearly enough of those for kids.
What is it? A very loose adaptation of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sci-fi fantasy series. Whereas most Ghibli films lean toward fantasy rather than diving straight in, this is full-on fantasy. Dragons, myths, legends abound.
Why this age? Because kids have to learn about disappointment sooner rather than later, and there’s no gentler way than through a Ghibli film that just isn’t quite as good as you want it to be.
What is it? It takes place in a post-apocalyptic future world, following Nausicaä, the young princess of, yup, the Valley of the Wind. When the militaristic kingdom of Tolmekia tries to use an ancient weapon to eradicate a jungle of giant insects, she fights against them. It’s notable for not actually being a Studio Ghibli film – but it is by Miyazaki, so it’s included here.
Why this age? Giant insects, kind of scary, kind of intense, very post-apocalyptic.
What is it? A woman moves from the city to the country, and has wistful thoughts about her high school life. That’s the whole film, honestly. I love it deeply.
Why this age? It really depends on your child’s tolerance for a largely plotless film about the ennui of a woman in her mid-20s. If your child’s report card comes back as ‘sensitive’ or ‘thoughtful’, you can probably move this to the 7-10 range. Not to project from my own experience, but I guarantee they’ll appreciate it.
What is it? This is, if not the Ghibli urtext, then definitely the Miyazaki urtext. It’s a Kurosawa-esque tale about living in balance with – and, more importantly, kindness to – nature, and what happens when nature fights back. It’s the darkest of his films, and easily the most brutal (don’t worry though, it’s not exactly Tarantino).
Why this age? The aforementioned darkness and brutality makes it less appropriate for the younger ones, but the clear, not especially subtle environmentalism makes it a good way to start some important conversations with your kids (recycle, go vegan, shop locally, eat the rich, that sort of thing).
What is it? This is maybe the most polarising of Ghibli’s films, but it’s one of my favourites. It’s more plot-driven than much of the studio’s output, and the characterisation of Howl (a callous man) and Sophie (a young woman transformed into an old woman by a curse) rubs some people the wrong way. But I’m a big fan of the setting, a country on the brink of war, and the relationship between Howl and Sophie develops in interesting, surprisingly complex ways.
Why this age? There’s some pretty scary depictions of war in Howl’s Moving Castle, and it truly depends on how interested your child is in a love story set against the backdrop of that war, albeit with some of Ghibli’s wildest steampunk designs to decorate it.
What is it? An adult romance that is also quietly an anti-war film? That doesn’t sound like a Ghibli film at all! But it is, and it’s beautiful, graceful and heartbreaking. The latest film in Miyazaki’s oeuvre is also a loose biopic of real-life plane engineer Jiro Horikashi, who led a fascinating life.
Why this age? See above re: adult romance and ‘sensitive’, ‘thoughtful’ children.
What is it? Tensions erupt between two good friends after a new girl moves to town. That’s right, it’s a Ghibli love triangle, y’all!
Why this age? For a third and final time, ‘sensitive’ and ‘thoughtful’ children need only apply. It’s not one of the best Ghibli films, and is arguably the least successful of them, so maybe by the time your kid gets to this age, they’ll be watching it more out of completionist tendencies than genuine curiosity. Still not a bad film, though!
What is it? From director Isao Takahata, this is by far the bleakest of the Ghibli entries. It follows two children searching for food in the wake of a bombing. It’s among the most despairing films you’ll ever see, but also one of the most beautiful, and surprisingly hopeful. (Note: This is the only Ghibli film that won’t be coming to Netflix, for some reason.)
Why this age? Honestly, at any age, this film will wreck you. As with all of these choices, use your discretion when showing it to your kids, but even more so when watching it yourself. There are images from this locked into my brain, and my eyes can generate emotion-water just thinking about them.
These films, with the exception of Grave of the Fireflies, are all streaming now on Netflix.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.