Want to celebrate Earth Day with your children, without the danger of sliding into existential dread? Try watching a movie.
More specifically, a movie from legendary Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli, responsible for many of the most thoughtful environmental kid’s films in existence. Depending on your location, the majority of Studio Ghibli’s works should be available to stream on HBO Max, or Netflix (although, they’re worth renting too).
It’s common for kid’s movies to have some kind of vague environmental theme, considering how many involve animals either escaping captivity, or attempting to save their habitat from bulldozers.
But if you’re looking for a film that’s as boldly outspoken in its pro-environmental themes as Pixar’s Wall-E or Disney’s Avatar, you might want to check out one of these Studio Ghibli films:
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Nausicaä is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in which the environment seems to be aggressively pushing back against humanity, the world’s forests having mutated into a poisonous biomass that threatens to engulf the remaining fragments of civilization.
The film’s titular protagonist, Nausicaä, is pulled out of her comfortable, idyllic valley and drawn into a conflict between the world’s major powers (even the apocalypse can’t stop humanity from engaging in pointless conflict!).
The film is notable for its unique art direction, and the way in which the grotesque, oversized insects that litter the landscape are framed as sacred, unknowable entities. To counter the airborne poison, characters are often seen wearing masks, an interesting parallel to our current situation.
Nausicaä is about finding hope in a seemingly hopeless situation, and implies that technology doesn’t have to be used to destroy, but to rebuild.
A fantastic film for younger children, Ponyo is a colorful story of a little boy named Sosuke who befriends a magical fish, who soon evolves into a young girl.
While Ponyo’s environmental themes aren’t quite as pronounced as the rest of the films on this list, the film opens with Ponyo’s father (an eccentric sea wizard), cursing how humanity has plagued and polluted his homeworld.
The story focuses on the budding friendship between Ponyo and Sosuke, but sees their home, a small island in the middle of the ocean, threatened by rising tides, the result of nature becoming dangerously unbalanced.
Ponyo is a film that celebrates the magic and wonder of childhood, while depicting its protagonists rising to meet the challenge of a climate change emergency.
One of the most unique films on this list, Pom Poko follows a group of raccoon dogs (which aren’t quite the same as raccoons, and are considered magical creatures in Japanese folklore), during their struggle to save their habitat from land development.
The film features plenty of narration, almost as though the viewer is watching a nature documentary, and contains some great sight gags, with the help of the raccoon dog’s shapeshifting abilities.
What seems like a typical tale of adorable animals vs. bulldozers reveals itself to be a complex, surprisingly poignant tale of fighting a losing battle against modernity.
The tribe of raccoon dogs are up against an unrelenting, faceless enemy, and are plagued by in-fighting and uncertainty, as the tribe’s tactics are repeatedly called into question.
Amusingly, one of the tribe’s greatest obstacles is their own slothful nature – they’d rather relax, than save their homeland. And who can blame them?
Castle in the Sky
An action-packed adventure film for all ages, Castle in the Sky tells a story of two strangers, Sheeta and Pazu, being pursued by the military as they search for a forgotten kingdom, floating in the sky.
Much of the film’s environmentalist commentary is imbued into its setting; Pazu inhabits a village of poverty stricken miners, scraping their empty mines for the final flecks of precious metals. The fantastical world they journey through is, clearly, long past its prime, but beginning to rebuild a more sustainable existence after the collapse of an empire.
The magical, dreamlike ruin of the Castle in the Sky, once they arrive, is haunted by the tyranny of its former inhabitants. In one of the film’s most memorable twists, the sentient super-weapons that still roam the castle grounds have evolved into something else entirely.
Castle in the Sky tells a story of growth, bursting through the ruins of mankind’s hubris, contained within an adrenaline-infused, Spielbergian treasure hunt.
The most pro-environmental film on this list, but also the least child-friendly, Princess Mononoke (rated PG-13) is best enjoyed by older kids, due to the presence of blood, gore, and depiction of suffering.
It is, however, a remarkably insightful film that features no real villain, but simply a cast of characters with clashing objectives. The film’s protagonist, Ashitaka, is an indigenous tribe member cast out of his village after falling victim to a curse, and finds himself disoriented by the complexity of the outside world.
His journey to find the source of that curse pulls him into the all-consuming conflict between civilization and the forest. But this film doesn’t sugarcoat the natural world, or vilify humanity; the forest is shown to be a brutal, unforgiving landscape, a place where the weakest members of society simply cannot survive.
Human civilization, at its best, can care for the helpless. But the heavy demands of industrial civilization, and the arrogance of humanity, might be too much for the forest to bear.
The film (rather boldly) suggests that mankind and nature aren’t ever going to find true harmony again, and that the best we can hope for, is compromise.