Director Hayao Miyazaki had considered retiring from directing animated films after the gruelling production of Princess Mononoke. However, after seeing how few inspirational works of media were present for little girls, he pulled himself out of retirement to direct Spirited Away. The fantastical adventure featured the girl of Chihiro being whisked away to a magical world where she tries to find a way back home and save her parents from being transformed into pigs. Working in a bathhouse, she learns how to work and stay true to her virtues amid such strange and unorthodox fantasy creatures.
Spirited Away was not only a stellar return to form for Miyazaki but it became his first Academy Award winning film, having won for Best Animated Feature. The success of the film also led to numerous other Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films coming stateside, garnering more notoriety for one of the most brilliant minds in the field of Japanese animation. But there’s more than just Miyazaki’s astounding filmography of inspiring women roles to find an animated film that is as charming and fun as it is a progressive step forward. Check out these ten films that have the same sense of wonder present in Spirited Away.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
As one of Miyazaki’s other most notable films about a young girl showing great independence, Kiki’s Delivery Service features the 13-year-old Kiki venturing off to find herself and become an accomplished witch. Staying true to her family’s tradition, she takes off on her broom with her cat to seek work and worth in the outside world. She settles down in a port-side city where she finds shelter with a kind woman who runs a baking business. It is there that she establishes her own business of making deliveries on her flying broom, making new friends along the way, including the aviation-obsessed Tombo who just can’t seem to leave her alone. Packed with wondrous animation and charming characters, the film’s English voice cast includes Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, Tress MacNeille, and Janeane Garofalo.
My Neighbor Totoro
Considered one of Miyazaki’s most playful pictures for the younger crowd, My Neighbor Totoro tells the tale of two sisters and their dad moving out to the Japanese countryside in the 1950s. Satsuki and Mei are excited to discover the secrets of their creepy old house where ghosts may lie. The spirits they find, however, reside outdoors in the enchanting woods. It is there that they discover the giant and cuddly creatures of the grinning Totoro and the speedy transportation of the Catbus. With their mother in the hospital, the sisters find whatever magic and fun they can with the woodland creatures they share a land with. The English voice cast includes Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, Lea Salonga, and Frank Welker. The character of Totoro has since gone onto become the mascot of the Studio Ghibli brand.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castles takes place in a steampunk world of magic, wizards, and witches. Sophie is a mere milliner who finds herself running across the wizard Howl while on the way to visit her sister. She also runs across a mysterious witch who places a curse on her, transforming Sophie from a young lady into an old woman who hobbles about. Seeking to break this curse, she seeks out the aid of Howl and his magical castle that can walk across the land. Within the house, she meets other magical characters and begins to learn a bit more about the charming yet dangerous Howl. As another Hayao Miyazaki film, Howl’s Moving Castle is bursting with majestic whimsy and breathtaking animation, earning it an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. The film’s English dub cast includes Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, and Josh Hutcherson.
The Cat Returns
Based on the manga of the same name from Aoi Hiiragi, The Cat Returns is a Studio Ghibli film that once more involves a girl being swept away on a magical adventure. This time, however, the protagonist is a high school student, the shy and clumsy Haru Yoshioka. Haru can’t seem to do anything right, whether it’s arriving at school on time or finding just the right way to ask out a boy. But once she saves a cat from being hit by a truck, she finds herself being thanked by legions of talking cats from their hidden kingdom. To show their thanks, the cats insist that Haru marry the Cat Prince whom she saved. But when getting married to a cat involves becoming a cat herself, Haru seeks the help of the dapper feline Baron Humbert von Gikkingen to save her from a marriage she does not consent towards. Directed by Hiroyuki Morita (an animator on other Studio Ghibli films), this fantastical adventure features the English voices of Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle, Elliott Gould, Tim Curry, René Auberjonois, and Judy Greer.
Not all films on this are strictly Studio Ghibli as a number of other anime films have made their way into similar territory. One of the most acclaimed Japanese animated films of the 2010s was Your Name. The film follows two high school students, a boy and a girl, switching bodies on certain days. Unsure how this keeps happening, they try to put the pieces together, realizing they reside in opposite parts of Japan and during opposite timeframes. It isn’t until they learn more about each other that they find they need to prevent a catastrophic event from occurring if they hope to remain in their bodies. Directed by Makoto Shinkai (Weathering With You), this coming-of-age drama with a sci-fi twist of body swapping not only became a major blockbuster in Japan but also won Best Animated Feature Film at 49th Sitges Film Festival and the 2016 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards. The success of the film has led to the development of a live-action remake by Paramount Pictures.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower
Based on the classic fantasy novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, this animated adventure follows the young Mary on her journey into a magical world. While following a cat, she stumbles upon a magical broomstick as well as the rare planet of the Fly-by-Night flower. A combination of the flower and the broomstick transport Mary far above the clouds into the hidden Endor College, a place for magical discoveries. But all is not well at the school and things go from bad to worse when Mary finds herself lying as things grow more chaotic. Directed and co-written by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty), the voice cast for the English dub includes Ruby Barnhill, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Kate Winslet, and Jim Broadbent.
Castle in the Sky
Miyazaki wrote and directed this fantastical adventure of young kids discovering magical secrets in a world of airships, floating islands, and legendary magic. The young boy Pazu makes a miraculous discovery when the mysterious girl Sheeta comes floating down from the sky. He later discovers that Sheeta is an orphan who was kidnapped by the evil Colonel Muska who is seeking out a castle in the sky. Only Sheeta knows the whereabouts of such a place and relies on the comradery of Pazu and his airship pirate pals to find this mystical place of ancient technology. Regarded as one of the most popular of Japanese animated features, the film features an English dub cast with the voice actors James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman, and Mark Hamill.
Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon once more animates a stylish and whimsical take on Irish folklore. Taking place in the mid-1600s, the town of Kilkenny has been committed to killing the wolves that threaten their populace. Robyn is the daughter of the top wolf hunter in town and is seeking to prove her worth in the wild. But while she roams the woods, she discovers the feral girl of Mebh Óg MacTíre, a girl able to switch between being a human and a wolf. The more Robyn learns about Mebh, the less inclined Robyn feels to keep the war with wolves progressing. But she’ll have to contend with adults who won’t listen to her. Directed by Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells) and Ross Stewart, this fantastical and stylish adventure features the voices of Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Jon Kenny, John Morton, and Maria Doyle Kennedy.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Stop-motion animation studio Laika conceived their most magical and action-packed picture with Kubo and the Two Strings. The film takes place in feudal Japan, where the young boy Kubo has grown up without an eye but has a strong ability to play music and manipulate paper. When an evil spirit comes looking for him, he’ll find himself teaming with a monkey and a beetle to fight back against the dark magic and retrieve the mystical armor and weapons to save the day. Directed by Travis Knight (Bumblebee), the historical and mythical fantasy features the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Matthew McConaughey.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Based on the classic novels by Lewis Carroll, this Disney-animated classic tells the story of Alice, a girl who finds herself with a very active imagination. She soon finds herself tumbling into the confusing and wild world of Wonderland, encountering all manner of odd characters and stories amid silly songs of nonsense. With so many strange and curious creatures scurrying about, finding her way back home may be harder than she thought. Directed by Clyde Geronimi (Cinderella), Wilfred Jackson (Peter Pan), and Hamilton Luske (101 Dalmatians), the film features the voices of Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Richard Haydn, Sterling Holloway, Jerry Colonna, Verna Felton, J. Pat O’Malley, Bill Thompson, Joseph Kearns, Dink Trout, and James MacDonald.