For decades, Studio Ghibli has broken mold after mold of what we expect films for kids to be.
The Japanese animation house — founded by the filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki — has spent 35 years telling winding, complex stories that stretch the bounds of what animation can do. In one, a treacherous battle rages between humans and the deities of a forest fighting to maintain the balance of nature. Another tale pits sorcerers against each other and questions the supernatural ethics of using magic in warfare. And one story opens up a transcendent and terrifying spirit world, in a work heralded by New York Times critics as one of the best films of the 21st century.
But Studio Ghibli has also, with impeccable consistency, struck a rare balance that most family-oriented movies struggle to achieve. These are undoubtedly children’s movies — but they also have a loyal following of adult fans, who devour their favorites over and over again.
Now 21 of the studio’s classics and lesser-known favorites are finding a new audience via HBO Max, the first time the films have been licensed to an American streaming platform. But if you haven’t been stockpiling the DVDs for years, navigating such a hefty, wide-ranging catalog can be difficult. We’re hoping to make that easier with a few starting points.
If you’re looking for …
Start with: “Spirited Away” (2001).
Taking in 21 of these movies can certainly feel overwhelming. So if you must pick only one, there’s no debate: Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” is essential viewing. The story, about a young girl who stumbles into a dark spirit world, goes beyond the imaginative limits of just about every other animated film, from Studio Ghibli or anyone else. The hero, Chihiro, spends much of the tale looking for a way out — but by the end, you’ll wish you could both stay just a little bit longer. It is filled with fantastical creatures, strange demons and a powerful sorceress looming over them all. “Spirited Away” is one of Miyazaki’s most thrilling films, and by far his most immersive.
After that, try: “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004).
There is a witch, a curse and a love story, but that’s where the similarities between this Miyazaki film and all other fantasy stories end. The curse in question is on Sophie, a shy young hatmaker turned into a feeble, elderly woman. In her quest to break the spell and get back to her normal self, she joins an odd troop of characters — including Howl, a powerful, shape-shifting wizard himself — traveling in a roving steampunkish home. The whole adventure is enchanting, and even if you’re not in the mood for fantasy, Billy Crystal’s excellent performance as the English-language version’s easily incensed fire demon, Calcifer, is reason enough to watch.
If You’re Looking For …
A Coming-of-Age Tale
Start with: “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989).
This Miyazaki film has one of Studio Ghibli’s most lovable (human) characters in its young hero, Kiki — an adolescent witch who leaves home, as all witches do at her age, to complete her magic training in a new town. With a bright red radio and talking black cat, Jiji, in tow, she starts a delivery service to sharpen her broom-flying skills and meets a delightful array of new friends along the way. Even with the magic elements, the story is less eccentric by Ghibli standards, with fewer vibrant spirits to digest. But the film is still a superb adventure, and one that is beautifully animated: The opening scene, of Kiki lying in the sun with her radio as the grass sways in the wind, is one of the studio’s most breathtaking visuals.
After that, try: “The Secret World of Arrietty” (2010).
That titular secret world is close by: Arrietty is no taller than a leaf, and her equally diminutive family lives under the floorboards of an old family home. The Borrowers, as they call themselves — Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s film is based on the children’s novel by that name — take only what they need from the human “beans” a few inches above them, one sugar cube or tissue at a time. Arrietty, turning 14, is impatient to go on borrowing adventures of her own, but her family’s way of life is put at risk when a human boy with a keen eye moves in above. Like “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” the world that Yonebayashi builds is lovely on its own, but the real charm comes from watching the restless Arrietty come into her own.
If You’re Looking For …
Something Light but Heartfelt
Start with: “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988).
“Totoro” is one of Miyazaki’s earliest films, and also one of his best. The touching story focuses on the sisters Satsuki and Mei, and the extraordinary characters they befriend outside their new home. Having two young protagonists (along with their massive, fluffy allies) makes this a great way to introduce small children to Studio Ghibli. But be warned: This one will just as easily suck in the adults.
After that, try: “Ponyo” (2008).
Much like “My Neighbor Totoro,” this bright, colorful Miyazaki film focuses on younger characters, so it is another good entry point for children. Ponyo, a small, vaguely humanoid goldfish, has a brief yet delightful friendship with a 5-year-old boy, Sosuke, before returning to the sea. The encounter leaves an impact, and Ponyo, now with legs of her own, finds a way back to her friend, dancing atop waves of massive fish in a stunning sequence. It is one of Miyazaki’s most joyous, bubbly works, and one that adults will find equally enthralling. (The is also wildly star-packed, including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin and Betty White.)
If You’re Looking For …
A Gripping Adventure
Start with “Princess Mononoke” (1997).
This is one of Miyazaki’s greatest stories — but it can, like any good supernatural battle for the soul of a forest, get a bit bloody. Princess Mononoke is not a name but rather a description of San, a human girl raised by wolves. She and the warrior prince Ashitaka become entangled in a bitter war between the animal gods of the forest and the humans using up its resources. This film is widely considered to be one of the Studio Ghibli’s essential classics for the intricacies of its story and the excellent animation, but go in knowing that it is much darker than its other works.
After that, try: “Castle in the Sky” (1986).
There are no slow moments in “Castle in the Sky.” The story is gripping from the start: Packed in the first few minutes alone are a kidnapping attempt, an attack from a crew of lovable airborne pirates and a girl magically floating down from the sky. From there, the film follows the quest of that girl, Sheeta, and her courageous new friend, Pazu, as they try to find a mythical levitating kingdom hidden in the clouds. Another perk: Mark Hamill.
If You’re Looking For …
Start with “The Wind Rises” (2013).
In his films, Miyazaki has long had a fascination with flight, which already lends itself well to animation. “The Wind Rises” centers on the life of Jiro Horikoshi — who is just as captivated with aeronautics, having dreamed of being a pilot as a boy. He grows up to become a successful aviation engineer, and the film explores Jiro’s conflict as Japan uses his personal joy for violent ends in World War II. The story is a relatively straightforward historical drama, without the usual magic and spirits that characterize Miyazaki’s best work — but the animation is unforgettable, with a breathtaking earthquake scene early on and beautiful dreamscapes capturing the whirl of Jiro’s imagination.
After that, try: “When Marnie Was There” (2014).
This Yonebayashi film, one of the studio’s more recent additions, was never a critical success — at more than one point, the coming-of-age story can feel unfinished. But the animation is alluring in its own right, with glistening seaside scenes and characters who shine. “Marnie” centers on the 12-year-old Anna, whose summer away from home comes with a strange new friendship. There aren’t as many of the fantastical elements that populate other Ghibli classics known for their art, but for animation buffs, the visuals are worth admiring.