Disney vs. Ghibli, A Cartoon Studio Comparison

August 1st, 2012By Category: Arts & Entertainment

Disney vs Ghibli

Way back in 1928, audiences were enthralled as the black-and-white, animated short, Steamboat Willie, made its theatrical debut. The rest as they say is Disney history. Perhaps you may know of the main character in that first film. He goes by the name “Mickey Mouse.” Of course you know him! Mickey is one of the most recognizable cartoon characters on the planet, I might go as far as to say he is THE MOST recognizable. Walt, Roy, and the Disney staff went on to create a cast of characters who were so special, so beloved that continue to bring smiles to children of all ages, even some 50 years after Walt’s passing: Donald Duck (my favorite of course), Goofy, Pluto, Minnie, Daisy, Pete, Chip, Dale, and so many more.

In August of 1986, Ghibli studios released their very first feature film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky* and captured the imagination of a nation. Ghibli Studios has gone on to make a host of wonderful, animated features: My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Grave of the Fireflies, among others. Hayao Miyazaki’s Ghibli studio is one of the most well-known Japanese anime studios in existence today.
*Nausica was released in 1984 before the actual studio was founded.

Earlier this year I had a chance to return the Ghibli Museum for the second time, and I think my second walk-through was even more memorable than the very first time. While I was strolling around, browsing through Miyazaki’s sketches and watching that animated, 3D Totoro diarama, it struck me just how different the Ghibli atmosphere is from the Disney one. I have been to Disney Sea twice and to Disney Land twice and of course a museum and an amusement park are an apples to apricots comparison, but even the Disney Studios features and Ghibli works evoke a completely different set of emotions when you watch them, right?


Disney specializes in cartoons and films that have that Disney pixie dust sprinkle…the Disney magic. The movies take you out of the realm of what’s real, and for a brief moment, you have a chance to escape the stress and the trouble that exists in your world and join an animated, Disney protagonist on a wonderful adventure. Disney does a great stimulating the wonder muscles of your mind. For example, with the Peter Pan cartoon (a revival an existing story) Peter, Wendy and their companions could fly with a little magic powder and a lot of belief. Or there was one of my favorite magical moments in the film Sword in the Stone when Merlin and Madame Mim had a Wizard’s Duel…CLASSIC! Disney animation doesn’t always have to incorporate magic to inspire wonder, but it helps. Watching a Goofy “How to Cartoon” has the same kind of Disney magic for a whole different set of reasons, usually because the cartoon is so entertaining.

Oh. Let’s not forget the Disney music. If told you to sing “Under the Sea” right now, I know so many of you, even if you don’t want to sing it, are playing the song in your head right now. Whistle While You Work, of the Hi Ho (7 Dwarves) or Zippidy Doo Dah. I was singing A Whole New World just a few short weeks ago at karaoke. The songs are so catchy that it makes me wonder if Disneyland has a secret cellar where they test the “catchiness” factor of their songs on theme park patrons. In my head I see an unusually muscular, costumed Mickey snatching up poor unassuming visitor and take them to the music cellar to see how the Disney music effects the human psyche. I wonder if there are songs, that never saw that light of day, ones that drive people to their wit’s end. Once the test subject starts smashing their face in to the nearest wall, I’m sure the scientists are all like “Nope, guess we can’t use that song in the movie.”

Anyway, when you couple unforgettable Disney animation with catchy music you get the formula for magical Disney feature films which are, by and large, feel-good films.


How about Ghibli? Ghibli films are special for other reasons. Ghibli Films may have feel good moments, but I wouldn’t say they’re “feel good” features. I think all of the Ghibli films I’ve seen deal with some type of loss or potential loss. In the Totoro film the girls potentially could have lost their mother, or in Grave of the Fireflies (Dear God that movie was sad) it’s the death (loss) of an entire family, or in Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s the loss of youth. I wouldn’t call these the main themes of the Ghibli films but it’s such a strong underlying them that it affects the air of movie. As a result, Ghibli Films tend to have a more serious ambiance than their Disney counterpart. Slightly more serious animated features isn’t a bad thing, it kinda makes the Ghibli movies what they are.

Ghibli films can be quite magical in their own right. Castles in the Sky, Gods of Nature, Dragons, Talking Bouncing Heads, Wizards, and Magical Charms are all fair game in a Ghibli Film. The magic isn’t as “bippity boppety boo-ish” for lack of a better term, but it’s magical and memorable, nonetheless.

Ghibli Music. I think there are some really catchy Ghibli tunes that American audiences may not be aware of, but are wildly popular here in Japan, like Totoro’s theme the “Aruko” song. Ghibli Studio features, employ some of the best orchestral talent that Japan has to offer, which make the films all the more memorable. I wouldn’t say all of the Ghibli song lyrics are catchy, but some of melodies can be.

Disney has been around for quite some time, and from it’s humble beginnings in the mind of a Kansas City boy, the animation and the company have truly evolved into a global phenomenon. In the beginning, Disney was best known for the the animated representation of the classic fairy tale with a happy ending: Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The next evolution focused more on films that catered to Walt Disney’s specialty, animals personified: Lady and the Tramp, the Lion King, etc.. The latest evolution has been a CGI (computer graphic image) craze.

Ghibli Studios really reignited my Japanese animation spark when I saw Spirited Away. It was Chihiro’s journey that inspired me to watch more of the company’s feature films. For the most part, I’ve like every film I’ve watched. Ghibli, however, lacks the diversity that Disney has. Disney has made so many different teams and so many different films that you can end up with a film that is markedly different from any Disney film you’ve ever seen. The Ghibli films are limited in the subjects they can cover, whereas Disney can literally draw from just about any story, or any genre in the world. Snow White and Kung Fu Panda are very different films. Nausica and Princess Mononoke, though different, have a LOT of similarities.

Will the Ghibli films ever be as popular as the Disney ones? I highly doubt it. Disney is an animation juggernaut with staff and resources that Ghibli would have a hard time even thinking about matching.

However, you don’t have to be a juggernaut to make great animation. Film after film, Ghibli continues to prove that. No disrespect to Disney, because I love Disney films, but lately it seems like they’ve lost their way with the film market. There are so many films that employ the use of computer technology that they seem to be getting further and further away from the magic of hand-drawn animation…the very thing that put them on the map. I LOVED the Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Monsters Inc. But I can’t remember the last time I saw an amazing, drawn Disney Cartoon.

Quiz time: 1. What is the best Disney animation of all time? 2. What is the best Ghibli Animation of all time?

Author of this article

Donald Ash

Donald Ash is the creator of TheJapanGuy.com website.  He is from Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. and is currently living and working in Ibaraki, Japan as an English teacher.  The majority of his professional work has been in the educational field, having taught both karate and middle school in the United States.

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