The two goliaths of modern feature animation – the US’s Disney Pixar and Japan’s Studio Ghibli – both unleash new films over the next fortnight. Pixar returns with a slickly calibrated sequel to 2006’s ‘Cars’ while Ghibli – the Oscar-winning animation house behind ‘Spirited Away’ – returns with ‘Arrietty’, a suitably quaint take on Mary Norton’s series of ’50s fantasy novels ‘The Borrowers’. But when the history is written, who will be seen as the modern masters of the form?
I’ll be the first to admit it’s a bad time to argue the case for Pixar against Studio Ghibli. The Disney offshoot’s latest, ‘Cars 2’, is its worst since, well, the original ‘Cars’ – a garish toy factory that’s not fit to stand alongside the best of either studio’s output. But even my esteemed colleague must admit that the ‘Cars’ films are a minor blot on an otherwise unblemished record.
The majority of Pixar’s output is inventive, smart, exquisitely crafted cinema – putting its Japanese counterpart in the shade. I’ll begin with the most obvious angle: the visuals. The look of the average Ghibli film, while often beautiful in a painterly way, simply doesn’t have the dynamism and expressiveness of Pixar’s finest work. Ghibli’s characters, who all look roughly the same (big eyes, big mouths, flapping arms), are restricted to a series of repetitive facial expressions – alarm, sympathy, sadness – which in turn restricts the emotional range of the story. Pixar, meanwhile, has as many styles as it does directors, and the results range from the pathos of ‘Toy Story’ to the exhilarating underwater world of ‘Finding Nemo’ to the achingly human face of Carl in ‘Up’.
Pixar also dominates when it comes to comedy: while Ghibli’s idea of a joke ranges from slapstick pratfalls to seafront-postcard sauce, Pixar draws on the history of screen comedy, from the Keatonesque silent whimsy of ‘Wall-E’ to the knockabout comedy-club banter of ‘Monsters, Inc’. But it’s on an emotional level that these films must compete, and Pixar has the edge here too. While Ghibli has produced some powerful pieces of work – devastating masterpiece ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is a tougher, more adult piece of work than Pixar has yet dared – its characters don’t have the depth and believability of Pixar’s. Whether it’s Buzz Lightyear’s identity crisis, Wall-E’s romantic desperation or Carl’s loneliness, these films boast an emotional richness that transcends the films’ kid-friendly roots, offering satisfaction to viewers of all ages. I can’t deny my tremendous respect for the work of Studio Ghibli, its playfulness and originality, insight and intelligence. But until it produces a scene to match the wordless opening of ‘Wall-E’ or the heartbreaking photo montage in ‘Up’, my heart belongs firmly to Pixar.
Studio Ghibli's 'My Neighbour Totoro'
As my similarly esteemed colleague has rightly mentioned, for the Ghibli connoisseur, it’s a fortuitous time to have this stand-off. With ‘Cars 2’, Pixar has made a film that appears to answer the simple question – what can we get away with sticking a mouth on next? But remove ‘Cars 2’ from the equation, and there are still big problems with the Disney offshoot’s oeuvre. Even though much effort is put into presenting the Pixar fraternity – beavering away in their plush San Francisco HQ – as the kind of lovable nerds who sport Hawaiian shirts and Foghorn Leghorn ties without irony, there’s something eerie (Stepford Wives eerie) about their cinema which I just can’t get over. Sure, I giggle at the fine-tuned gags and am often in awe of the craftsmanship, but every frame feels like it’s been passed under the nose of some corporate jackal with his eye firmly locked on the lunchbox market. And yes, I’m well aware that Pixar films are also ‘about stuff’, but compared with a Ghibli film, it’s the difference between being invited to grapple with subtle, meaningful subtexts and having someone repeating: ‘He’s grieving for his dead wife, donchaknow?’ Through a megaphone. Into the face of a napping infant.
Ghibli’s biggest popular success was 2001’s ‘Spirited Away’ by Hayao Miyazaki, a kaleidoscopic exploration of a young girl going through puberty. But it was also a film whose lavish visual charms and narrative flights of fancy could be taken entirely at face value. My personal favourite – and, in my view, one of the pinnacles of modern animation – is 1988’s ‘My Neighbour Totoro’. It’s a work that – for all intents and purposes – has no plot but still manages to be one of the most moving (and charming!) films portraying life from the psychological perspective of a child. Animation is often annexed as something separate from ‘real’ cinema, but ‘Totoro’ is a film whose DNA is shared with such masterpieces as Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Where Is the Friend’s House?’ and Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’.
‘Arrietty’ is another small miracle, an ornate, thematically rich take on ‘The Borrowers’ in which the struggles of a tiny family living under the floorboards becomes a poignant tale about realities of children living with a physical disadvantage. ‘Cars 2’ has quota-filling comedy sidekicks and crass cultural stereotypes. Is that a KO in round one?
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