Once upon a time, North American distribution for the films of legendary animation house Studio Ghibli were held firmly by Disney — and why not? The House of Mouse’s vice-like grip on all of our childhood memories is an accepted reality at this point. From Marvel to Star Wars, and of course their own originals, everything we hold dear these days seems to be a Disney property. However, the reigns of Ghibli distribution were recently passed from the monolithic company to GKids, a New York-based distributor that began releasing Ghibli’s films for North American audiences. Now, with the help of Shout! Factory, GKids have released new editions of Ghibli’s back catalogue. For North American Ghibli fans, this is great news. Not only are the films more accessible, but the new releases hold to the distributor’s usual standards of quality.
Does that mean you should throw your Disney Blu-rays in a bin and drop a few hundred on the new editions? Not entirely. As much as these new releases represent a fresh coat of paint for the beloved films, they’re only an upgrade from Disney’s releases in certain regards. To anyone looking to add one or more items from the Ghibli catalogue to their collection for the first time, the choice is clear: the GKids releases are affordable, readily available and have everything you could want within reason. But if you already have the Disney version, don’t go looking to make the upgrade just yet.
At this point, what is there even left to say about Studio Ghibli? There’s a reason that these new releases are a boon to North American fans: they are some of the most stunning and nuanced films in the entirety of animated cinema. The fact is that Disney’s versions have been typically limited in quantity in order to carefully control pricing, keeping these films from reaching the widest possible audience. Thankfully we can put those days behind us.
The new releases, somewhat staggered in terms of content, offer every film a Ghibli fan could want — all of the classics and canon releases, with only a few exceptions, like The Castle of Cagliostro, to keep buyers hungry. Hopefully these scattered oversights get addressed in the near future.
The biggest and most important change from the Disney releases of Ghibli’s films comes in the presentation of the movies themselves. Rather than simply recycle Disney’s HD transfers of the movies, Gkids’ releases have entirely new transfers apparently taken from original studio negatives and lovingly touched up; the films are more stunning than ever.
If you’re looking for an in-depth comparison between the Disney releases and the new versions, this sadly isn’t something you’ll find here. Without the Disney versions to look at and the technical acumen to compare them thoroughly, we can’t offer a pixel by pixel, shade by shade breakdown of just how much of an upgrade this is. However, it’s evident in every frame of the films that Gkids took as much care as one could ever hope for bringing these works to Blu-ray again.
From Ponyo’s stunning backgrounds, with their almost colored pencil style, to the impossibly crisp, vibrant visuals of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, the term “gorgeous” doesn’t do justice to how these movies look. Every detail and color pops off the screen, and even for seasoned Ghibli die-hards who are intimately familiar with every frame of some of these movies, the sensation of watching a whole new film is hard to shake off some times.
That isn’t to say that they look too clean and polished, mind. There’s an art to the HD remaster, a way to give the material a proper high-def upgrade that doesn’t result in things feeling slightly “off,” and Shout! Factory and GKids have fairly thoroughly mastered that art. Essential subtleties like the presence of a slight film grain and the temperatures of the colors are fully intact. The films still look very much of their time, but crystal clear in their presentation. This goes for sound as well as image, with balanced audio levels across the board. Your days of struggling to hear the dialogue over the music in the dub of Princess Mononoke are thankfully over.
Speaking of dubs, the English language tracks from the previous releases are entirely intact, despite many of them having been Disney productions. If your ideal version of Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service sounds like Kirsten Dunst, rest easy, as the previous dubs are carried over. Less so if your idea Kiki is Lisa Michelson, but perhaps a re-release of the old Streamline Ghibli dubs is more than could be reasonably asked for.
If there’s one area where the new releases of the Ghibli catalogue fall a tad short, it’s this. With a long and proud tradition of stunning original box art, it’s something of a surprise that Shout! Factory and GKids’ versions of the films retain essentially the exact same box art as their Disney predecessors. The one exception is Princess Mononoke, which sports a new image of San in place of the previous release, which portrayed Ashitaka in mid-swordfight. That aside, the releases are functionally identical to the previous releases, with new overlays replacing the Disney branding.
Not to say there’s anything wrong with this box art; it’s perfectly serviceable. However, if there’s one area that Shout! and GKids could have easily gone the extra mile on, it’s this. Stunning, high-end new box art could have helped the films feel like more of an upgrade, drawing in collectors with an eye for how the new versions look on a media shelf. Perhaps even something like alternate artwork on the inside of the slip cover, or spine art that links up to form a larger image?
It’s a nitpick, yes, but only because it feels like the one major missed opportunity. For many, the cover art doesn’t matter. Some will even dispose of the cardboard sleeves each film comes in, but some of us have a thing for “shelf candy,” and these releases will leave such collectors dreaming of what could have been.
For the most part, the extras on the new editions continue the trend of carry-overs from the previous Disney releases. The Behind the Microphone featurettes on the new English dubs remain, presented in SD. Some of the best bonus features from the Disney releases are carried over as well, such as the 16-minute video chronicling Miyazaki’s visit to Pixar on the Howl’s Moving Castle disc. The sight of an elated John Lasseter running up to hug Hayao Miyazaki is worth the price alone. Other items of note include a feature-length storyboard for My Neighbor Totoro, a must-see for anyone interested in the animation process behind these films. In addition, each disc features at least one series of segments taken from a feature-length documentary, cut down to film-specific context. They’re by far the most polished of the extras offered, so much so that it’s easy to start wishing that the full-length doc were included. However, this would ultimately only compound the main problem with the bonus features on offer: a lack of consistency.
While some of the releases, Ponyo in particular, are bursting at the seams with bonus features, others are a bit more spartan, offering only a Behind the Microphone segment and perhaps one or two bits of the larger doc. This creates something of an imbalance in the bang-for-your-buck factor among the individual releases. In some cases, you’re more than getting your money’s worth in bonus features — in others a bit less so. If you’re planning on going all-in on the new editions, this isn’t so much of a problem, but for those viewers planning on cherry-picking their favorites, you may find yourself envying the abundance of bonus features on other titles.
If you’re a North American fan looking to add physical copies of the Ghibli library to your collection, GKids’ and Shout! Factory’s releases are pretty much your only choice. Tracking down the Disney releases, which are sure to only go up in price, isn’t worth it given how identical they are to the new editions. Similarly, upgrading from the Disney releases to these new versions is a hard value proposition to make. It might be a different story with more new bells and whistles like new packaging and more bonus features, but this also would have most likely driven the price up.
Overall, it’s clear that Ghibli’s library is in good hands with its new distributor, and they have done a bang-up job of keeping the films accessible, even if the releases are lacking for some bells and whistles to entice users looking to upgrade from previous releases.
You can learn more about GKids’ Studio Ghibli library, including where to buy the releases, at their website