Howl's Moving Castle is one of Japanese animation mogul Hayao Miyazaki's finer epic works. Its nearest relative from his collection is Spirited Away, in that it centers on a young girl torn from her natural environment and thrust into a bizarre world that tests her inner strengths. However, rather than having an oriental tone, this film is distinctly European, possibly due to its having been drawn from an outside book by Diana Wynne Jones rather than being his own story. Likewise, Neil Gaiman wrote the U.S. adaptation of Princess Mononoke, based on Miyazaki's script, so collaborations are not unheard of. However, he leaves an unmistakable stylistic imprint and his craft always shines through.
In the story, a young hatmaker named Sophie is cursed by the arrogant Witch of the Waste and turned into an old crone who is unable to specifically speak of what has happened. Having previously been taken on a brief flight over the rooftops by the handsome rake Howl, as he evaded the Witch's amorphous henchmen, she finds herself drawn into his odd, 4-legged, mechanical castle, where she quickly becomes a needed housekeeper. Sophie is readily accepted by his young apprentice and the "demon" Calcifer, who has a certain mysterious connection with Howl. The scenes involving the living, cantankerous fire creature are especially enjoyable. Sophie comes to love Howl and figures prominently in helping him to resolve his various entanglements. The backdrop is one of royal houses that find reason to battle one another with unusual military craft, especially those which fly on a variety of flapping or buzzing wings, a pererennial and amusing Miyazaki device.
In a sense, Sophie's quick thinking and ready adaptation to unusual situations mirrors both Howl's transformations and the strange shifts of his physical home. Despite her own sufferings, she maintains a grounding and resolve that form a foundation for an otherwise constantly shifting tale. One appealing story element is her being presented as an old woman at one moment, her true self the next and various stages inbetween. Howl can see her as she really is, especially when she is alseep, yet plays off of it in a coy manner. It is one of several visual devices applied in a memorable way, which highlights the emotions of the characters.
There is comic relief in the form of a bouncing scarecrow who never seems to lose his balance and a wheezing dog named Heen, who is a bit more than he seems. In addition, the blousy Witch of the Waste undergoes a gradual downhill slide that is both revolting and prone to elicit sympathy, although she has it coming in spades.
The continuity sometimes feels as if it is drifting off the path a bit and taking certain liberties, but the inherent charm of it makes the tendency seem secondary. There are several loose ends that never even get explained, much less tied up. Still, in a tale so purposely hallucinatory, the usual standards are set aside from the outset, which makes it a noble hoax rather than an ill-plotted clunker.
One key aspect of both Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away is that the animation style, while generally coherent, includes sections that receive extra attention to detail. In particular, various throne rooms and inner sanctums have a hyperrealistic appearance that almost strikes you as being what you could never quite remember from a dream…. and suddenly, there it is. It has been a notable element of Japanese anime to present a basic appearance, yet also to veer off into sepia tones or broad washes at key moments. Unlike, say, Fantasia, which has a generally consistent and rather creamy visual style, Howl's Moving Castle takes chances, with long views or painfully intimate moments of peril that all but fall into your lap with great sweeps and other framing moves. The feeling of movement is a constant, even during simple gatherings of just a few characters.
All of Miyazaki's offerings include some reference, if not an outright central thread, to the despoiling of nature and the headlong plunge of some great power plowing through peaceful settings, both natural and social. While I have a special fondness for 1994's Pom Poko, a memorable tale of shape-changing raccoons seeking to preserve their ancestral forest home in the face of human expansion, Howl's Moving Castle represents a subtle but readily grasped step up in texture and visual breadth.
His films are all noteworthy, but Howl's Moving Castle is especially elegant. A few moments might be a bit strong for very small children, but overall, it is a striking work most anyone can appreciate for the fine tapestry it represents. In a field often swamped with CGI or purposely crude animation with rather raucous content, Miyazaki continues to create fine works on a linear curve.