Best Studio Ghibli films on HBO Max and Netflix

Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away
(Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

Studio Ghibli is responsible for some of the greatest animated films of all time, and finally, you can stream them all in one place! HBO Max (US) and Netflix (UK) have a full catalog of Ghibli to dive into and for anyone going in blind, it can be a little hard to decide which one to watch first. Fortunately, you can't go wrong with any of these fantastic movies. With heart-warming and engaging stories, unforgettable characters, and beautiful animation, here are our top picks for the best Studio Ghibli films. However, if you want to start with a bang, the award-winning Spirited Away is a great choice.

Best overall: Spirited Away

Ten-year-old Chihiro is less than enthusiastic about moving away from the life she knew and starting all over again. After taking a wrong turn, Chihiro and her parents wind up in a mysterious and seemingly abandoned amusement park, but not everything is as it seems. Suddenly trapped in a world full of spirits, our young hero must find a way to save her parents and return home.

Spirited Away is more than just a simple fairy tale. It manages to capture a beautiful coming-of-age story and establishes strong, memorable characters in a unique adventure. Chihiro is a stand-out as a strong female lead who experiences so much growth; it feels like you are taking the journey right beside her. Let's just say some tears will be shed. Plus, the way director Hayao Miyazaki connects his characters makes it difficult to pinpoint a "villain." A dazzling soundtrack and stunning animation support this narrative, and it all culminated in an Academy Award for the best animated feature. The colors, sights and sounds are so brilliant, and Miyazaki truly makes the Spirit World come to life.

However, while this is the pinnacle of animated films, it does have a few scenes that may prove too frightening for young children. Also, the runtime sits at 125 minutes. While there are plenty of action-filled sequences and captivating visuals, some children may not be able to sit that long. Regardless, the brilliant story is an amazing experience from start to finish and has earned its spot as the best overall.

Reasons to watch:

  • Unique and moving narrative
  • Exciting action scenes
  • Great character development
  • Good balance of quiet moments and action
  • Great main character
  • Beautiful animation

Best for families: My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro is an adorable little film. We follow sisters Satsuki and Mei as they move to a spooky new house to be closer to their ailing mother. It's a sweet, simple story of sisterhood, family, and a little touch of forest magic. Running at just 86 minutes long, it's the perfect film to enjoy with your little ones. (My toddler loves it!) Though I recommend this as a family film, this story is a fit for any age.

This film has a variety of colorful and loveable characters, and it's able to say so much with very little action. It's a great story of sibling love, dealing with family hardship, and the power of imagination and childhood. The animation and soundtrack are also lovely.

While this film is one of my favorites, there isn't much action going on. So, if you're looking for something to get your blood pumping, this is not the film for you. Also, if you are a fan of the original 1989/1993 English dub, you may not be a fan of the 2005 redo. It is, however, a delightful look at childhood innocence and serves as a great reminder of what truly matters in life.

Reasons to watch:

  • Great for little kids
  • Family-friendly themes
  • Wonderful soundtrack
  • A fit for any age

Best fantasy pick: Howl's Moving Castle

In a world of witches and wizards, the hat-maker Sophie gets whisked away as a victim of circumstance. A chance encounter with the infamous wizard, Howl, sends her on a journey to break free of a rather unusual curse. In a tangled web of magic, warring countries, and unexpected twists, sometimes an average, everyday person can make a difference. Miyazaki films have an amazing way of surprising their viewers, especially when it comes to character growth and motivation, and that's all reflected in Sophie's journey.

Of course, Howl's Moving Castle has incredible animation. It also has a great cast of characters, one voiced in the English dub by the hilarious Billy Crystal. However, it should be noted that this particular movie does portray some frightening scenes, including depictions of war. It may be too much for little ones to handle. It also features heavy "anti-war" themes.

Reasons to watch:

  • Brilliant voice acting
  • Unique story-telling and twists
  • Incredible animation
  • Great character development

Best battle-inspired: Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke captures the horrors and complicated nature of war, and is one of Miyazaki's darker films. As a bystander, Prince Ashitaka must leave his world behind as horrors of battle drag him into a conflict. Ancient Gods, demons, hired samurai, ironworkers, and warlords are locked in a struggle that will bring devastation to all.

In a perfect blend of old world and new age ideas, this is unlike any other Miyazaki film. It doesn't shy away from the terrors of war and the destruction such conflicts leave in its wake. Stunning animation and a moving soundtrack pair with an intense story where lines between good and evil are blurred. While this is an overall excellent watch, it's definitely not for kids due to extreme violence, language, and darker themes.

Reasons to watch:

  • Edgy, compelling story
  • Multi-dimensional characters
  • Blend of old world and new world story-telling
  • Great animation
  • Moving soundtrack

Best fairy tale: Ponyo

Ponyo is a nod to the classic Hans Christian Anderson story, The Little Mermaid, and is both charming and adorable. Sweet little Ponyo wants to escape her world under the sea and meets five-year-old Sōsuke. The two establish an unbreakable bond; however, Ponyo's father is quite ready to let his little girl go just yet.

Ponyo is a magical tale of love, leaps of faith, and a little oceanic magic. It's also incredibly cute. With a perfect balance of tension, levity, and lovable characters, it's easy to enjoy. It's an excellent film for just about any age, and little ones will love the colorful animation. It sits at about 101 minutes long, which is not too terrible. It has that distinct Miyazaki blend of real-world and fantasy.

Reasons to watch:

  • An adorable story of love and friendship
  • Perfect family film
  • Stunning animation and music

Best drama: The Wind Rises

Stepping away from the magical aspect of Studio Ghibli, The Wind Rises takes a more dramatic turn. The final film Miyazaki created before his retirement in 2013, (of course, he's back as of 2017) stays rooted in the real world, specifically Japan in the years between 1918 and 1945. Jiro Horikoshi has dreamed of building airplanes since his youth. We follow him through his trials and tribulations of achieving his dream, despite his near-sightedness.

This heartfelt story captures real-life struggles in World War II Japan, and that sometimes following a dream could have unexpected consequences. While it does have an uplifting message, The Wind Rises is not for the faint at heart. It tackles difficult themes, ideas and subject matter that children may not have been exposed to. It's not a "typical" Studio Ghibli film, but it is powerful. It's most definitely worth a watch.

Reasons to watch:

  • True-to-life story
  • Captures real-life struggles
  • Crisp, beautiful animation style
  • Touching character relationships

Best true to life: My Neighbors the Yamadas

A little slice of life is always pleasant, and that's precisely what you'll get with the vignettes in My Neighbors the Yamadas. The film follows the daily lives of the Yamada family, in all of their glorious imperfect fashion. Experience everyday troubles and hilarity in a simple yet amazing little movie.

Directed by Isao Takahata, this film is told a little differently than other Studio Ghibli entries. It takes on a more cartoonish style, which perfectly matches the tone. It's funny, endearing, and a little sweet, which means it mirrors everyday life and how family can be a wonderful thing.

Reasons to watch:

  • Short, sweet, and funny
  • Relatable characters and stories
  • Unique water-color style animation

Best adventure: Castle in the Sky

If you want a film that captures everything on this list, then Castle in the Sky is a perfect pick. Pirates, princesses, magic, a hidden castle in the sky —this movie has it all! Adventure literally falls into Pazu's arms one evening as he catches a glowing girl named Sheeta floating down from the sky. Soon the dreaded Dola Gang and the military come barging into the small mining town to stake their claim on Sheeta and the pendant she carries.

Castle in the Sky takes exploration and excitement to new heights, as the two protagonists avoid capture and search for the mysterious sky-city, Laputa. This movie is a great blend of action, character, humor, and drama. It isn't too intense, but it does maintain a good balance between the different themes. It really does take you on a whirlwind adventure with love, courage, and discovery. Still, if you have kids who can't sit for two hours, this film has a run-time of 124 minutes, and some scenes might be too intense for very young viewers.

Reasons to watch:

  • This film has action-packed everything
  • Adorable character relationships
  • Intriguing story with sci-fi elements
  • Amazing animation

Bottom line

Whether you are looking for a heartfelt family film or a true-to-life narrative, Studio Ghibli has a movie for you. You really can't go wrong with any of these amazing films. Each one is special in its own way. It was tough to narrow them down.

However, if you are just looking for a good point to jump in, Spirited Away is a great place to start. Chihiro is a relatable protagonist who finds a strength she didn't know she had and grows tremendously on her journey through the Spirit World. With spectacular animation and a moving soundtrack, this film has all the pieces for an enchanted movie experience.

More Studio Ghibli

Sara Gitkos
Staff Writer

Sara Gitkos is a writer, editor, and Studi Ghibli fan. She'd have a difficult time picking her favorites from the Ghibli catalog. When not watching Studio Ghibli films, she's busy working on something Nintendo, tech-related or spending time with her family.