Works of Studio Ghibli, the animation team behind 'Spirited Away,' come to the Frida in Santa Ana

In the shadow of Walt Disney's legacy, Disneyland, the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana is introducing Orange County moviegoers to a different brand of animation — Studio Ghibli.

Studio Ghibli, the internationally acclaimed Japanese animation studio best known for its 2001 Academy Award winner "Spirited Away," has long been a powerhouse in Japan's film industry. But for American fans, finding Ghibli films in theaters can be tricky, if not impossible.

That's why the Frida created the Studio Ghibli Film Festival, which runs through Thursday.

"We've booked the last few Studio Ghibli films that have come out, like 'When Marnie Was There' and 'The Tale of Princess Kaguya,'" said Logan Crow, executive director of screenings and events programming for the Frida. "They did well, and every time we screened them, we got feedback saying, 'Hey, can you play Totoro?'" he said of the popular 1988 film "My Neighbor Totoro."

While Crow had always wanted to screen more Ghibli films, it took him until this year to make it happen.

"There are so many amazing films in the Ghibli canon," he said, "everything from the family-focused whimsy to the more serious and powerful, that having to pick and choose was going to be so difficult. That's why I wanted to play all of them."

The festival showcases 20 of Ghibli's 22 feature films, which span the past three decades.

"We've gotten a lot of families and parents who are telling us, 'I loved this when I was a kid, we own it on Blu-ray, but we never thought we'd share this with our kids on the big screen,'" Crow said. "That made us really happy."

Ghibli films have a distinctive whimsical style, said Crow, that possess the ability to "tickle your heart, blow your mind and make you think at the same time."

The movies combine gorgeous visuals — largely hand-drawn animation — and serious themes, such as war or environmental pollution. And instead of relying on traditional fairy tale tropes with clear good guys, bad guys, heroes and princesses, Ghibli films tend to be more subtle and complex.

"It'd be hard to find anyone in the film connoisseur community who wouldn't say that Studio Ghibli films are iconic, and that as far as a single studio's output, is quite possibly the most consistent and successful," Crow said. "I wouldn't even give Disney that."

Since 1985, when the animation studio was founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli has achieved unprecedented box-office and critical success.

Ghibli movies make up eight of Japan's 15 highest-earning anime films, and its 2001 "Spirited Away" became the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, as well as the only non-English film to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. In the past three years, "The Wind Rises," "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" and "When Marnie Was There" have been nominated for Oscars in the same category.

Despite this acclaim — and Disney as a distributor — Studio Ghibli has yet to reach mainstream popularity or success in the United States.

"They're lucky if they break $10 million over here," Crow said. "'Spirited Away,' a Best Picture winner, never saw and would never in a million years see the grosses that 'Cars 2' saw."

Crow sees this mostly as a result of marketing — "You're not going to see 'Spirited Away' lunch boxes or McDonald's toys," he said — and encourages American moviegoers and theaters to try something new.

"Everyone should be playing these films, and they did well here," he said of the new Ghibli releases that have run at the Frida. "It warrants being seen on the big screen. It'd be wonderful to see these films get the treatment they deserve, and for the distributors to take the risk to try to get them into cinemas."

In addition to the films, the festival includes a Studio Ghibli-inspired art exhibit in the Frida lobby. Chris Gonzalez, owner of Top Acid, a vintage clothing store, art gallery and music venue in Santa Ana, curated the exhibit and said he received "hundreds" of submissions from local artists who are "hard-core" fans of the films.

Gonzalez, who like many of the artists grew up viewing Ghibli films, said that rewatching the movies as an adult gave him new perspective.

"There's a lot more meaning to them than most American films, especially contemporary animation films," he said. "You can watch the movie a couple times, and every time you'll notice something different. They're made for children, but as an adult you can very much appreciate them and find more than you would have as a kid."

This week, the film festival will play "My Neighbor Totoro," "Kiki's Delivery Service," "Porco Rosso," "The Cat Returns," "From Up on Poppy Hill," "Tales from Earthsea," "Castle in the Sky," "Only Yesterday," "Howl's Moving Castle," "Princess Mononoke" and "Grave of the Fireflies," Crow's favorite.

The 1988 film tells the story of two children, a brother and sister, struggling to survive in Kobe, Japan, during the final months of World War II. It was lauded by film critic Roger Ebert as "belong[ing] on any list of the greatest war films ever made."

"I saw it when I was young and it was really disturbing," Crow said. "But that's the point. It's not supposed to be a film that makes you go away saying, 'Yay, war.' It's really powerful."

This emotional depth, he explained, pushes the boundaries of animation.

"It makes you reconsider what cartoons can do," Crow said. "It's OK to go beyond "The Fox and the Hound" and "Robin Hood" to deliver a strong narrative and be a viable cinematic art."

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What: Studio Ghibli Film Festival

Where: The Frida Cinema, 305 E. 4th St., Santa Ana

When: Various show times through Thursday

Cost: $10 general admission, $8 for students, seniors and military members; at 11 a.m. Sunday, cost is $5 for adults, $1 for children

Information: (714) 285-9422

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Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, caitlin.kandil@latimes.com

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