GKIDS could be considered the animation world’s equivalent of A24. Let’s take a look at its best films, both anime and European cartoons, from Spirited Away to Song of the Sea.
GKIDS is a distributor for high-quality foreign and independent animated films, ranging from the well-known to the experimental. They could easily be considered the animation world’s equivalent of a studio like A24. Let’s take a step back and look at the best of the best of the studio’s filmography over the years (note that despite its name, not all of the studio’s releases are kid-friendly).
Studio Ghibli Library
GKIDS has the US licensing rights to the entire Studio Ghibli library, and has 21 of these classics streaming on HBO Max (the exception, Grave of the Fireflies, is streaming on Hulu). Tune in to childhood classics like the mystical Spirited Away and romantic Howl’s Moving Castle, where characters go on grand and thrilling fantasy adventures, or take a look at Princess Mononoke, a gripping tale whose concerns about humans co-existing with nature still feel relevant today. For a change of pace, watch The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, where animators recreated a soft, minimalist brush-stroke style to evoke the era it was set in. For anyone looking to spend a day binging quality anime films, this is a great place to start.
Not to be overlooked is Tokyo Godfathers, a quirky and heartwarming classic from the incredible director Satoshi Kon, the director of Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue (the latter of which is also released by GKIDS, though it’s absolutely the least kid-friendly thing the company’s ever released).
The suspenseful, twisty story is set in modern-day Tokyo, where three homeless people (former drag queen Hana, teenage runaway Miyuki and estranged father Gin) discover a baby abandoned in a dumpster on Christmas Eve. In the holiday spirit, they search for the child’s parents. Through their hectic journey together, they beat the odds, gaining the courage to come to terms with the past and create a better future.
The Secret Of The Kells
This debut feature from director Tomm Moore is a fantastical ride that earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Historic elements, childlike wonder and Celtic mythology combine to make a film that is both intensely relatable yet deeply entrenched in its cultural roots.
The main character of the tale is a young boy named Brendan, who lives in a village that must constantly fend off raids from invaders. His humdrum life is interrupted when he is recruited to help complete a magical book, which requires him to enter an enchanted forest. There, he meets a mysterious girl from the forest, Aisling, who offers to help him. The creative ways in which these children solve their problems and bring salvation back to Brendan’s village are exciting and delightfully colorful.
The Painting is a European film, by French director and animator Jean-François Laguionie. It features a colorful, textured style, detailing the story of a kingdom within a painting. The story itself is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek moral affair, detailing the aptly named castes of Alldunns, Halfies and pariah Sketchies and their class conflicts.
A group of friends whose main element is a couple engaged in forbidden love between castes decides to journey to the edge of their world—and then tumble right out! They find that the studio is filled with other paintings, just as wonderfully illustrated as their own. Through their experiences, they discover that perhaps the Painter had more in mind for them than they first expected. Although the plot of this film may seem simplistic and linear to some, it more than makes up for it with gorgeous visuals.
Song Of The Sea
From acclaimed director Tomm Moore comes yet another beautifully drawn film that explores the connections between family, magic, and heritage. Song of the Sea takes the legend of the selkie and weaves it into a story about family secrets and a whole world of fantastical beings. Creatures both friendly and malignant hover around the seal-child Saoirse and her brother Ben, who must navigate a treacherous journey to save themselves and the spirit world.
The details in the ethereal animation build up an intricately patterned and textured world, smooth and rough line strokes combining to draw out depth and nuance. This may also appeal to Ghibli fans, with brief references to moments in Spirited Away. Song of the Sea is a treat for all ages, with stunning visuals, rich concepts, and a breathtaking story.
The Girl Without Hands
From the French director Sébastien Laudenbach, The Girl Without Hands is an experimental take on a classic Brothers Grimm fairytale. In an adaptation that does not hide the grisly details of the original story, the film depicts the struggles of a girl whose father sold her to the Devil, only able to escape after losing both of her hands. Her stubborn desire to to live free from this evil influence leads her to a generous and benevolent prince, yet her troubles still do not come to an end: the Devil will plot to get what the Devil wants.
This surreal film is filled with evocative hand-painted animation, where colored brush strokes writhe with movement, barely offering full outlines of the characters before transforming again. One of the most impressive facts about this film is the fact that Laudenbach actually animated the entire film himself, giving it a personal touch like no other.
The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl
Director Masaaki Yuasa’s epic comedy The Night is Short, Walk On Girl is filled with spunk and imagination. A night out in Tokyo turns into a fantastical journey, where our nameless female protagonist meets all sorts of colorful characters as she drinks through party after party seemingly tirelessly. She attracts the attention of another student who, enamored by her, invents increasingly unlikely excuses to run into her as she slips ever further away.
If the actions of this (also unnamed) young man sound familiar, that would not be surprising: the film is in many ways a spiritual successor to the anime The Tatami Galaxy, another Yuasa anime based on a novel by the same author. Not meant for younger audiences, this film nevertheless appeals to the simple childlike whimsy of exploring someplace new and finding there’s more to the eye than one may expect.
Napping Princess is a 2017 sci-fi/fantasy thriller set in the year 2020. Watching this movie might feel like peering into an alternate timeline, one where life is going on as usual, with the Tokyo Olympics still on. This feeling aptly describes the creative premise, where the main character is Kokone, a girl whose dreams of magic and adventure are revealed to affect real-world events. When her father, a mechanic, is kidnapped by a mysterious corporation, it’s up to her to both rescue him and uncover the truth about her family’s past.
Futuristic technology and magic-powered machines fuel Kokone as she and her childhood friend set out to the big city to set things straight. Her escapades in both dreams and reality are illustrated with equal attention to detail, with the abundance of bright colors emphasizing the light-hearted nature of the movie. While it deals with some darker themes regarding corporate greed or family issues, Napping Princess manages to pull off a sweet and uplifting ending.
A fairly recent hit whose initial fiery blast of popularity is still smoldering bright and hot, Promare is TRIGGER’s first feature-length film. Director Hiroyuki Imaishi (Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill) presents colorful and dramatic action-packed scenes in classic TRIGGER form. The story begins by introducing the existence of the Burnish, humans with mutated genes that can wield flames as a part of their being. Because of their destructive potential, these individuals have been cornered and corralled by the government. The film depicts the conflicts between newbie firefighter Galo Thymos, from the Burning Rescue division, and arsonist Lio Fotia, the young boss of the illegal Mad Burnish group.
Promare‘s bold, contrasting colors and unusual use of shapes have caught the eyes of many fans and artists, complemented by its blazing hot tale of justice and redemption. Despite some critics’ objections to similar character designs and personalities to past TRIGGER anime, Promare delivers on its promise of stunning visuals and an exciting adventure.
Weathering With You
Weathering with You is Makoto Shinkai’s follow-up to the worldwide sensation Your Name. Another teen romance with fantasy elements, this film follows high school runaway Hodaka and a mysterious girl named Hina who can control the weather. Despite his own dire financial straits scraping together a living writing for an occult magazine, Hodaka resolves to help Hina, but circumstances are more complicated than he thinks, and her ability belies an unforeseen burden.
The stormy weather that surrounds the couple seem to reflect their struggles, pushing to make difficult decisions to overcome their challenges. Although critics of Weathering with You point out a lack of cohesion and unresolved plot points, fans of Shinkai’s works will find that it is just as glittering and beautiful as its predecessors.