Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Hayao Miyazaki's latest feature length film, Howl's Moving Castle, is loosely based on a book of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. Miyazaki is probably the most consistent filmmaker out there - I can't think of a film directed by him that is anything if not good. Howl's is unmistakably a Miyazaki film, and it bears many of the signature elements that feature in most of his work.
Howl's Moving Castle is a fantasy adventure film with a dash of romance set in a fictional pseudo 19th century European Kingdom on the brink of war. The protagonist is Sophie, a shy young woman who works as a hatter and is resigned to remain one her whole life. Until, that is, she meets the famous Howl, a charming if vain young wizard with a reputation for stealing women's hearts. Her encounter with Howl enrages the jealous Witch of the Waste, who casts a spell on Sophie that causes her to turn into an old woman; part of the curse prevents her from telling anyone about it. The aged Sophie leaves her home and goes into the countryside to find Howl, who lives in a giant moving 'castle' that walks on mechanical legs, hoping that he'll be able to lift the curse.
Sophie finds the castle and winds up becoming Howl's cleaning lady (the place was an absolute mess). She makes some strange friends - besides Howl, the castle is occupied by Howl's assistant, a young boy named Markl, and a little fire spirit that 'powers' the house name Calcifer, who has a history with Howl and is bound to him. Oh, and a 'living' scarecrow that hops around on a pole tags along with the castle. Howl, who bears a secret that may eventually destroy him, is in a bit of a fix because he has been summoned to fight in the war (the details of which are sketchy), but he does not wish to on a matter of principal. Sophie and her friends try and help Howl out of his dilemma.
The story is character-centric and follows the personal journeys of Howl and Sophie as well as many of the supporting characters. The characters and the relationships between them evolve as the story progresses (sometimes quite amusingly), and friendships and unlikely alliances form. Despite not having a complex plot, a lot of things actually happen in the film - a trait common to Miyazaki's films. One element of the story that isn't dwelt on much is the war that takes place and infringes upon the lives of the protagonists. I suppose it's a testament to the fact that war is war regardless of the players and their causes, but the resolution provided at the end of the film was a bit too simplistic for my taste.
As one can gather from what I've already described, there are plenty of magical and fantastical elements in the film, like strange flying craft, beastly henchmen, magic portals, and magical transformations. These are all imaginatively realized on screen, especially Howl's castle, which is marvelously detailed and animated. In fact, the overall animation is (as always) stunning, with beautiful images varying from lush landscapes to cluttered houses to cities on fire. The inclusion of small human details (like characters straightening out their clothes for example) lends the film a sense of charm absent in lesser animated films. Frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi once again provides a wonderful score that perfectly matches the visuals and tone of the film.
Howl's Moving Castle doesn't quite reach the heights of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. There's something lacking, possibly the fact that it feels more unfocused and random, and seemingly drifts from one event to the next. The characters' impact on and interaction with the outside world doesn't seem as significant as in those films. It's not a major complaint however - just because it falls short of the brilliance of its predecessors doesn't mean it isn't a great film in its own right.