It’s Totoro vs. “Toy Story” in a battle royale for all ages.
Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
Pixar and Studio Ghibli are undeniably the two most preeminent animation studios since the golden age of Disney. One has turned 3D animation into the medium’s dominant aesthetic, and — with this week’s release of “Toy Story 4” — will soon have their fourth $1 billion-grossing film. The other is a more traditional (and director-driven) powerhouse that has enchanted audiences in Japan and around the world for more than 30 years, though its future remains unclear after the death of co-founder Isao Takahata and the semi-retirement of godhead Hayao Miyazaki (who’s currently hard at work on a new Ghibli feature that will be released in time with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics).
The world is wide enough for both Pixar and Ghibli, but this week’s critics’ survey is not: We asked our panel to pick one, and only one. Here are the results:
As technically imposing as Pixar’s worlds are in their advancement of CG animation, the breathtaking hand-drawn artistry of Studio Ghibli exists on an unchallenged league of its own. Ghibli doesn’t operate from the need to manufacture mass-appealing, narratively straightforward franchises; each of their monuments to imagination and craft blends hand-painted backgrounds with rigorously animated characters to convey philosophically intricate tales of wonder —some more adult-oriented than bulk of their output. Even if Pixar is the gold standard for computer animation, many of its most successful artists cite Ghibli as a major influence. Let’s not forget Totoro had a cameo in “Toy Story 3” at Pixar’s request, an appearance that had to be approved by Miyazaki himself. That’s a legend-level move.
There’s something undeniably special about the very best Ghibli films — their ability to transport viewers into worlds that feel spectacularly unique as filmgoing experiences, detailed in appearance and themes, and timeless in ways that have garnered such longstanding and widespread acclaim — that puts the studio and its releases on a tier above so many others. While Pixar has definitely been responsible for more than a few great movies, when it comes to the pedigree that’s been established through consistent quality, it’s a pretty clear vote for Ghibli from me.
To pit Studio Ghibli against Pixar almost feels like a case of Japan versus America, but alas I side with Ghibli. My childhood consisted of many animated movies, predominately the filmography from both studios, but there is something about Ghibli films that always bring me back no matter the year or season. If I had to pinpoint that “something” it would be the character, creature, and world designs of Ghibli films that put them above Pixar. The designs scream pure creativity as they invoke my wildest imaginations. Often I think about the creatures that live in the worlds produced by Studio Ghibli, and how humans contrast to them. There is a perfect balance to the designs that make them memorable and awe-inspiring. The best film from Studio Ghibli that intertwines my feelings and reasonings would be “Spirited Away”; my first Studio Ghibli film. Seeing ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino navigate the world of Yokai and walk amongst these creatures is a genius display of animation and ingenuity; forever sealing the deal of me being a Studio Ghibli fan.
Both Pixar and Studio Ghibli are at the pinnacle of animated storytelling, but in my mind, one thing puts Ghibli a notch above Pixar: Pixar is about humanity, Ghibli is about everything else. Pixar’s films have such a universal appeal because they hone in on human emotions and experiences with a deft specificity. But Ghibli films are sprawling, ambitious, and as much about the human condition as they are about humanity’s place in the greater scheme of things.
Whether they are environmental manifestos that speak to the terrible and merciful power of nature (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind), or whimsical fairy tales about a girl wildly out of her depth (Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service), or mythic adventures populated by multi-facted and flawed heroes and villains (Princess Mononoke), or heartwrenching fables that expose the darkest parts of humanity (Grave of the Fireflies, The Tale of Princess Kaguya), Studio Ghibli is unmatched in its capacity for bold, powerful, emotive storytelling. I think it’s in the studio’s mission: to deliver films that have a childlike capacity for wonder, rather than simply make films that appeal to children and adults. The perfect distillation of the studio’s capacity for delivering challenging, thought-provoking fare and lovely family-friendly stories is in the dual release of Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro in the same year — two films about the aftermath of World War II that couldn’t be more different, but couldn’t be more amazing.
Though the studio is mostly defined by its biggest auteur, Hayao Miyazaki, and his artistic and idealistic perspective, Ghibli has proven in its less well-known fare to be stunningly inventive and imaginative. And if we’re going to get pedantic, yes, it has a far better track record for rich female protagonists than Pixar has in its 33-year history.
Ghibli by the thinnest of slivers. On a film-by-film basis, I probably have more to say about Pixar. It’s built up a lot of emotional equity with me, and its best outings–“Ratatouille”, “Inside Out”, a few others–remain powerful gut-punches even in my twenties. I find an odd comfort whenever I visit (or revisit) Pixar’s worlds, its films’ emotional machinations no less effective and impressive even as you grow old enough to see the strings. Nonetheless, there are strings, which is something I can’t say about Ghibli, whose films often feel like a more freewheeling counterpoint to Pixar’s tried-and-tested narrative Secret Stuff. That it often manages to hit the same emotional registers in so many different keys is a minor miracle, and a testament to the unpredictable brilliance of Miyazaki, Takahata, and Co. Every Ghibli movie feels like freestyling, or a leap of faith, and that’s just feels more impressive than hitting all the right notes perfectly. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the best Ghibli films–“Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Spirited Away”, “The Wind Rises”–always seem to be about flying.
In the early 2000’s the comparison between Studio Ghibli and Pixar might have witnessed the latter arise victorious. Now, however, the supremacy of Studio Ghibli as preeminent animators should be unquestionable. The studio’s assured position traces to two areas: originality and the lack there of from Pixar. Much like the rest of Hollywood, Pixar has gone sequel crazy: releasing “Toy Story 4,” “Monster’s University,” “Finding Dory,” “Cars 3,” and “The Incredibles 2.” In fact, of their last 11 films, only four have not been sequels.
Studio Ghibli, on the other hand, technically, has never produced a sequel (“The Cat Returns” is an indirect follow-up to “Whisper of the Heart”). Instead, they rely on original stories and adaptions. While the major selling points of Pixar’s latest films boil down to technological advancements, with regards to animation, along with a fair bit of nostalgia, Studio Ghibli depends on the same innovations within hand drawn animation with the courage to explore new characters and creative worlds.
Tally the above reasons with classics like “Grave of the Fireflies,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Princess Mononoke,” etc. which submerses our hearts in tears with an artform becoming rarer by the day (hand-drawn animation), and Studio Ghibli stands far above Pixar.
To a certain extent, this feels solely like a matter of taste—a coin flip to end all coin flips. They’ve both made so many incredible films. Do you prefer Pixar’s bouncy, bubbly, seamless, new age computer-animated stylization or Ghibli’s tender, playful, textured, old world hand-drawn aesthetic? It’s probably a blend for most people. But, having to choose, I’m going with Ghibli for three reasons: variation, cultural impact, and originality. First, Ghibli’s filmography has a more diverse aesthetic range than Pixar’s. Though they have different directors, all Pixar films feel like they were directed by a single unit. Lasseter’s original style is always the cornerstone, whereas that’s not entirely the case with Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. One could even make an argument as to how that exemplifies an impressive consistency. But I love how wildly different several of Studio Ghibli’s films feel. Pixar has used 10 different directors over the course of 20 features (11 and 21 with “Toy Story 4”) while Ghibli has used six for 21 films. Yet, there’s a broader scope of animation exploration in Ghibli’s filmography. Consider the watercolor world of “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” or the goofy surrealism of “The Cat Returns” in contrast to Miyazaki’s signature style. Pixar doesn’t have those fresh, integral outliers.
Second, American exceptionalism is all too common to not marvel at the roaring success of Ghibli in the U.S. What other studio in any other country has wowed Western (specifically American) audiences so thoroughly? What other non-English-speaking studio could attract a senselessly xenophobic suburban couple and their impressionable children to a fantastical movie that reflects Eastern philosophy, culture, and tradition? Lastly, Ghibli never caved into a reliance on sequels. They’ve always delivered imaginative new stories unlike the last. Pixar has made some great sequels, but no one’s gearing up for repertory screenings of “Finding Dory,” “Cars 3,” or “Monsters University.” In the end, Pixar is an extension of Disney, and we all know how Disney feels about telling the same story.
Studio Ghibli revolutionized the art form. From an aviation enthusiast looking to forget the horrors of war and what he contributed to it, an anthropomorphic pig who too took to the skies, two sisters escaping grief in a world where monsters are friendlier than they appear, a lost bathhouse attendant and girl who runs with wolves, the scope of the worlds in the mind of Ghibli are endless. Artistically, few directors come close to achieving the magical realism of Hayao Miyazaki, the name synonymous with the studio.
Fellow director Isao Takahata similarly created worlds with stories that mirrored ours while charging fiercely into an animation style that had scenery refracting emotions, using color to express the characters wants, desires and fears. Place the watercolor, spiritual beauty of “Castle in the Sky” next to the earth borne and naturalistic “Only Yesterday” next to one another or the explosively expressionistic “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” next to the sensory overload of “Spirited Away”; no two are the same and each finds value in telling larger than life stories with characters who reflect the best and worst of us.
Ghibli isn’t just trying to make us laugh or cry, they’re trying to tell deeply human stories in a manner many still see as frivolous or belittling childish, not realizing the potent messages that can be delivered from it. The antagonists of Ghibli worlds aren’t the “bad guys” and those on the path of the hero’s journey are fallible and drawn to influences such as greed, vanity or laziness — it’s human to contain that level of gray. Ghibli released some of the greatest films of the last 30 years and their legacy is one that will be everlasting due to their belief in humanism, traditional animation styles and escapism.
I’m team Studio Ghibli. Pixar is a cool company, but they were much better in my opinion when they weren’t churning out sequels. Back in the day, it was Pixar’s M.O. to not do sequels unless it was absolutely warranted. However, I suppose they realized there were merchandising opportunities they weren’t taking advantage of–how else can we explain the Cars franchise? Ditto for “Toy Story.” Yes, the “Toy Story” franchise has great storytelling, but let’s ask ourselves — how many more stories about these toys do we need? When is the last “Toy Story” film actually going to be the last one?
And if Pixar is as committed to making sequels as they seem to be, can they make sequels that invest more in female characterization? Take for instance “The Incredibles 2” — I didn’t dig a lot of that movie, but what got on my nerves the most was how Mrs. Incredible was characterized like a man’s version of a Women’s Lib character. I found Mrs. Incredible much more interesting in the first film, when it was clear (at least to me) that she chose to stay at home for her children, something my own mother did. That characterization resonated with me, and I wished that nuance was kept in her characterization. Frankly, I wish more women were writing for Pixar period, so we could stop getting the “strong female” trope. It’s boring.
I don’t know how many women are writing for Studio Ghibli. But I will say that their films are consistently inventive, thought-provoking and completely immersive. There’s a love for the story within Ghibli films — not for what kind of merchandising they can get out of it, but for what kind of artistry the story can allow the artists to indulge in. The characterization is subtle; character motivations unfold organically and in a way that doesn’t talk down to the audience. And whether or not there are a lot of women writing for Ghibli, at least their female characterizations are far more interesting and nuanced. They are usually developed as people first, making them much more well-rounded characters.
Even better — everything’s still in 2D, my preferred animation style. There’s a magic 2D animation captures that just can’t be rendered inside a computer. If you’ve followed Pixar for long enough, you’ll know that Pixar is heavily inspired by Studio Ghibli’s storytelling style and art. To me, it’s clear that Pixar still has a lot to learn from their idol.
Studio Ghibli is objectively the stronger studio, in terms of both animation and storytelling. Their output tends to age better, too.
However, as someone who grew up in the west, there’s no denying the impact Pixar has had on my life — even just in terms of “Toy Story,” otherwise known as the greatest trilogy of all time, which I started watching as a kid and will now finish (maybe?) in my thirties. From a kid with zero understanding of who was voicing the characters to now, as an adult, nerding out over Key and Peele’s inclusion, Pixar has had an indelible impact on me as a person, a movie watcher and, naturally, a film journalist.
Even lesser offerings like “The Good Dinosaur” (an absolute chore to get through) don’t diminish the returns of something like “Inside Out,” “Up,” or the gloriously insane “Incredibles 2,” a film so hilarious it should be reserved for transatlantic plane journeys (except you’ll probably annoy everybody around you who isn’t watching it). Funnily enough, Pixar hasn’t appealed to who I am as a person (read: a weird kid) the way Laika has, so maybe it’s just that it’s been around for so much of my life as to become a comfort blanket of sorts. Even so, it provides the requisite warmth.
Dan Kois (@dankois), Slate
Both studios have released 21 features. I bet you knew that already and that’s why you asked the question. I’ve seen all but one of the Pixars and have missed many of the non-Miyazaki Ghiblis, yet by my tally at least 10 of Ghibli’s 21 movies are flat-out masterpieces, while only 8 of Pixar’s are. So: Ghibli! Less quantitatively, I cry like a hose at Pixar movies but nevertheless feel much more intense upwellings of emotion when I think of particular scenes from Ghibli. I feel as though those moments will stick with me until the day I die.
To put it mildly, this decision is difficult. Two of my all-time favorite animated films are “WALL-E” and “Spirited Away.” But I’d say that out of the 21 feature films each studio has produced thus far, Studio Ghibli has consistently created good-to-great films, while Pixar has had more mixed results. The fantastic world-building and visionary animation of Miyazaki and Co. are revolutionary and boundary-pushing, whereas Pixar is presently resting comfortably in franchise-dom and sequels. Give me a Catbus over another “Cars” sequel any day.
With an eye on significance and impact, I have to give the edge to Ghibli on some simple principles. Truly, as great as the Pixar movies are, they are just extensions of very general and domestic things we already have enough of, especially with their semi-recent sequel phase of repetition. For Ghibli, their wide-ranging work is more important and necessary as a gold standard of traditional animation, diversity, and cultural expression. Those values driven by their emotional storytelling and unending creativity matter more in the grand scheme of things, no matter how brilliant and shiny Pixar can be.
Studio Ghibli. Besides having a clear, beautiful animation style, their movies are thematically more ambitious and are not afraid of going dark when the story needs it to be. They’re focused in producing movies with a lot of heart and empathy, and have wildly original stories to tell.
Studio Ghibli. I appreciate their careful attention to form and their obsessiveness about detail, down to the last page. They love their characters, and they aren’t afraid to let them be complexly human, living in the tensions between seemingly contradictory and yet compatible truths. (Howl is cowardly and principled, Chihiro is childish and determined, San hates humanity but can’t escape her own nature.) I love Ghibli fields and Ghibli reds and Ghibli hair and Ghibli rain, and I love their willingness to let a scene breathe for a few beats longer than most, giving the audience to sit in the atmosphere and live in the moment. Pixar (which I also love) has spawned many imitators, but there is only one Ghibli.
This one’s a toughie — both Ghibli and Pixar take decidedly different approaches to their particular strain of “grown-up” animated films. Where Ghibli is lush, airy and steeped in Japanese history and mythology, most Pixar films entrench itself deeply in Western cultural symbols — toys, cars, superheroes — to comment on very specific and accessible anxieties about life, death and growing up in America. That said, if I had to pick one body of work, it would have to be Ghibli’s on the strength of Hayao Miyazaki’s output alone. Pixar’s hold on pop culture reigns supreme, but they’ve had their ups and downs — “Cars 2”, anyone? — but Ghibli’s output consists largely of a hot streak from “Nausicaa” all the way to “The Wind Rises”, with a few good-but-obscure properties in between.
What’s more, stanning for Ghibli also means advocating for the value of hand-drawn animation, which is increasingly rare in an industry where CG reigns supreme. Miyazaki’s worlds are beautifully rendered and incredibly imaginative, much wider in scope than a kids’ bedroom or a floating house. You can practically feel the wind on your face as Nausicaa flies through the air, or the rain on your head as Totoro sits at a bus stop on a rainy day. They’re also deeply, consistently melancholy: “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away”, and more feature characters grappling with loneliness and obsolescence, while “Princess Mononoke” warns of the imbalanced relationship between man and nature. This isn’t to say that Pixar’s work can’t be heavy either (as anyone who’s seen the first ten minutes of “Up” can attest) but Ghibli’s work feels more universal, more richly textured. Pixar’s had some wonderful highs, but Ghibli offers a layer of consistency and maturity, combined with the most stunning hand-drawn animation ever created, that simply can’t be matched.
The question asks us to pick one, not necessarily declare a superior, which is my big out for picking Pixar. They have the numbers advantage (I’ve seen almost all of their stuff), and thanks to those numbers, I’ve learned more about filmmaking from watching Pixar movies. As someone who grew up (and continues to grow up) during particularly uneven times for wide-release American studio movies, it was eye-opening for a younger me to see big-studio, all-hands-on-deck product engineered with such wit, heart, and polish. (This must be what it’s like for people who can’t get enough of the MCU.)
In retrospect, it might be strange that a 19-year-old loved “Toy Story 2” as much as “Magnolia” or “Being John Malkovich” back in 1999, but that made it feel all the more special. It’s been equally fascinating to see Pixar tinker with its own formulas during that crazy hot streak of “Ratatouille,” “Wall-E,” and “Up,”; to stumble (creatively, if not financially) over its own success by producing too many goddamn sequels; and to produce the kind of weird, imperfect project that was clearly pushed to make its release date rather than relentlessly group-polished until it was a surefire $300 million winner, simultaneously giving me a late-period non-gem to champion (“The Good Dinosaur” is underrated!).
I know there’s an Ugly American vibe to preferring the Disney-owned American behemoth to the Japanese studio that hand-drawn movies at a slower pace. But I am sort of an Ugly American, as well as a parent. And many of Pixar’s movies speak to the joys and difficulties of that particular role in that particular place. Don’t get me wrong; I’m definitely going to show “Princess Mononoke” to my kid, along with several Ghibli classics I’ll be watching for the first time. But sometimes what you admire and what you love are not the same.
I’ll say Pixar, for one really simple reason—reading subtitles prevents the full immersion that is especially demanded of animated films, where the creation of a fantastical world deserves your eyes to give equal due to the whole screen (rather than be constantly darting to read across the bottom). That is certainly not to say that reading subtitles blocks enjoyment of films; of course not. But reading subtitles does prevent the viewer from catching everything happening visually, and that’s especially a shame in films where hundreds of artists agonized over the creation of every color, line, shadow, and pixel.
I struggle to fathom any human not loving the dancing scene in “Wall-E.” But I certainly understand someone who isn’t fluent in English loving the scene just a little less than I do, simply because they were spending that time reading subtitles of a computer explain what dancing is across the bottom of the screen, rather than fully surrendering themselves to the moment. So this isn’t a value assessment. I’m not saying Pixar films are better than Studio Ghibli films. But I am saying that it makes perfect sense why I like them more, just as I think it makes perfect sense that a Japanese speaker would prefer Studio Ghibli.
But here’s how to get the best answer: Ask critics that speak neither English nor Japanese.
Pixar is an incomparable, untouchable studio whose groundbreaking and boundary-pushing feats of cinema and cinema technology paved the way for everything else of similar genres which came after it. Although Studio Ghibli is older than Pixar Studios, as it was founded in Tokyo in 1985, as compared to Pixar’s later birth year of 1986, I think Pixar takes the cake, when looking at each studio’s impact on a global scale. When “Toy Story” (a product of Pixar Studios) hit theaters in 1995, the world was forever changed in how people viewed what makes a movie, and how it can be made. Computers were no longer just an addition to filming; they became an integral part of it and widened the possibilities of what the eye could see and imagine.
For its impact (as well as critical and commercial success), “Toy Story” was nominated for three Academy Awards, and it was the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award in the category of writing. Although the Academy Awards are an American event, they are widely regarded in the international film community as the crème de la crème of cinema prizes. Looking at things from purely a numbers standpoint, Pixar Studios has won 9 Oscars (and had 12 nominations), whereas Studio Ghibli has won only one Oscar (and had 6 nominations).
Man, what kind of demented “Sophie’s Choice” question is this? What a decision to have to make! I love both, but I’ll go with Pixar, for two reasons. First, their movies all feel very different to me, whereas Studio Ghibli’s feel like they’re part of one big collection. There’s nothing wrong with that; I just have a slight preference for variety. Second, and probably more importantly, several of Pixar’s films have touched me on a deep emotional level. I’d have to give them the edge for “Inside Out” alone.
Sadly, though I have tried over the years to cultivate an appreciation for the work of Studio Ghibli, and otherwise adore Japanese cinema (of the live-action kind), I have simply never been able to grasp what people find appealing about the aesthetics of this globally revered production company’s work. NO matter the story nor the genre, it all looks and sounds like “Speed Racer” to me. I know, this makes me a philistine and a horrible person, but there you go. Pixar therefore handily wins in my book, though certainly that particular studio has made some duds, among them the entire “Cars” universe (I am also no fan of the latest “Toy Story”). Give me “Inside Out,” “Monsters, Inc.,” the first three “Toy Story” films and “Up” any day, thank you very much.
Pixar, hands down. When “Toy Story” first came out, the film revolutionized animation. Sure,they have some franchises that are weak–I’m looking at you, “Cars”—but overall, Pixar has been churning out quality content over the years. Take a look at “Coco” in 2017. This film was a departure from their previous films. We get a look at a family of Mexican heritage but this film also showed that the studio is ready to produce an all-out musical. I’m not saying that the latter will happen anytime soon but it’s very possible in the near future.
Rob Thomas (@robt77), Madison Capital Times
This week’s question is brutal. But I’ve just had more of an emotional connection with the best Pixar movies than the best Studio Ghibli movies. They’ve made me empathize with a robot, a rat and of course a tattered cowboy doll to a degree I didn’t think possible. The range of emotions the animators can suggest with the most subtle changes in expression, the way the writing taps into feelings too complex for other animated (or even live-action) films, the quality of the voice acting – when it clicks together, it’s undeniable. As lovely as the hand-painted Ghibli characters are, there just isn’t that depth of feeling.