Not only that, but the people the heroes trust may turn on them. This happens in the beginning of Spirited Away, when the young heroine passes through a strange portal, somewhat like Alice falling down the rabbit hole- except she is led through it unwillingly by her parents, who, once on the other side, gradually forget and abandon her.
So characters are never really "good" or "bad," and in fact, we can't even assume whether the circumstances the characters find themselves in are good or bad, either. I often think of Ponyo, when the world is flooded and the two children are setting out on a merry adventure in a toy boat. Wait- isn't everybody dead, swept away by the water? Well, the kids don't know that for sure, so why shouldn't they make the most of the situation?
And even if everyone is dead- perhaps even death itself is not entirely as it seems to us. Think of the hapless frog swallowed by the spirit with no face in Spirited Away. No Face seems to be a vicious and insatiable monster, and yet later, like a bully who's been cracked like an egg, he reveals that all he's really after is a little sympathy and attention. The frog, presumed dead, is then disgorged, fully conscious and completely unscathed.
In this way, I tend to string together Miyazaki's films into a grand spiritual lesson: nothing that happens to us really matters as much as we think it does, not even suffering. What matters is that the cosmos itself is benign. Many of his films have god-like protective figures who comfort and reassure children, and this is a wonderful correlative to how the films themselves can affect audiences. When Nausicaa promises the little ones of her village that she will return in one piece after saving the world, they stop crying and believe her. Everything's going to be okay.
The themes of these films have been on my mind for years, but until recently, I never gave much thought to their technical side. I've begun to realize that the character animation is serviceable but typically minimal. A car bumping along a road might be animated on threes or fours (8 drawings per second or even 6); a character in conversation might not move a muscle, other than to move his mouth stroboscopically, for several seconds. I never feel short-changed by this. It's done carefully so that we won't be taken out of the story. No corner is ever cut, yet neither is any energy wasted. It is just what it needs to be and nothing more, and so it rarely calls attention to itself at all.
What is outstanding here is not the action but the design. It seems to me that his films are inspired heavily by graphic novels (he was once a Manga artist, after all), not only in theme and character but in the way the design can tell the story. Totoro is a character that any cartoonist or animator would be proud of; his bulging eyes and toothy grin are easy to draw, and once they spread across his face we understand his whole character immediately. The backgrounds of his films feel lived-in, and are packed with details for sharp eyes. And everything always looks lovely and consistently composed. It's such a delightful style that it's taken me quite some time to notice how economical it is.
The style of character animation born at the Disney studios is a different beast. Miyazaki of course uses the same essential principles that the original Disney animators codified for the first time- anticipatory actions, squash and stretch, exaggeration, and so on- but his acting is not the bombardment of technical flourishes that any great Disney scene is, and is not as obsessive about wringing every bit of feeling out of character action in every scene. Look at the number of things that Bill Tytla's Stromboli does in the blink of an eye, and the fluid, constant redrafting of Milt Kahl's Mr. Snoops (the essence of what separates traditional animation from 3D), and the ballet of secondary actions that Lady and the Tramp perform in Frank Thomas' great spaghetti scene. Every muscle in the characters' faces is articulated. There is more to look at than you can process in one viewing.
The acting in these films is so powerful and expressive that as a kid I was often embarrassed to behold it- ashamed that I could be so easily overcome with feeling by watching a fiction, and I would even shield my face from the strangers I passed on the way out of the theater, in case they might detect that I had been made to blush, or tear up, or even smile.
Disney had a very specific purpose in developing this style: he wanted to create a drama using animated characters, which had never been done before. It was an enormous risk. When the dwarves gathered around Snow White's bier and wept on each other's shoulders, would the audience do something they had never done before and weep along with these characters- or would the scene be ridiculous and laughable? The needs of the story he was telling drove him and his animators to make his technique what it was. Needless to say, they completely succeeded: when Grumpy's face dissolves from resilience to tears, we see the truth in it, and we could never laugh.
As animation grew up, that same style was applied to other powerful visions, and in some cases more innovation was required to serve one film or another. At some point, however, the style seemed to be more the point than the content. Think of The Sword In the Stone, and films from that same era, in which the animators weren't reined in and played out all the funny ideas they wanted to try. Critics considered these sequences- Merlin and young Arthur scrambling around the forest as squirrels, for instance- to be overly long and self-indulgent. I could never complain that these sequences exist- any artist can drool over them- but they do seem to exist for their own sake. Here, the style is the point.
As I get older, I find myself less concerned with technical achievement, no matter what art form we're talking about, and more about cohesiveness and having form and technique follow function in a purposeful way. As dazzlingly emotive as these old Disney scenes are, they would be of little use without the greater purpose they serve. A Disney movie with scene after scene of beautiful animation but no coherent story would be unwatchable. By the way, that's not a hypothetical- rent The Three Caballeros. You'll see.
For a nice counterpoint, think of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a triumph of structure following function. Fred Rogers' was the most minimal puppetry of all time. You surely remember that the puppets flapped their hands together as their only means of emphasis. Yet in any episode, the characters might have grappled with anything out of the full range of human emotion- disappointment, confidence, jealousy, sympathy, attraction. To bring these feelings to life, and to encourage children to project them onto the inanimate faces of the puppets, the human actors compensated with some excellent over-acting. This was the design of the show, and it worked great. Here, as with Miyazaki's work, and the earliest of Disney's films, the vision of the storyteller came first, and concerns like medium, style, and technique orbited around that.
When so-called "traditional" or "2D" animation is mentioned in the news, it is usually to grimly report that the final nail in its coffin may or may not have been driven home. This is as ridiculous as holding a funeral for, say, oil painting. Drawn animation is simply a medium, defined by its own set of possibilities and limitations, and not replaceable by any other medium, certainly not by computer technology. We should not be scratching our heads over the fact that the Studio Ghibli films are the highest grossing films in Japan's history, and yet are "traditionally" animated. The conversation should not swirl so much around these different techniques: which is better, which is more popular. These questions are irrelevant. The very word "medium" is a hot clue that we're talking about something that is supposed to be in between two other things- the audience, and the ideas. If the ideas are good enough, and the artist is intent enough on rendering them in a sensitive and evocative way, then whatever means are employed to do this are the artist's business. Miyazaki is a colossally talented visionary who happens to dream in ink and paint.