Spirited Away sure must have been a tough act to follow so you would have expected Hayao Miyazaki to take it easy and release a lighter, smaller film before bringing us another substantial effort but that didn't happen. Instead, we got Howl's Moving Castle, one of the director's most creative works to date.
Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the film follows 18 year-old Sophie as she is turned into a 90 year-old woman by a witch because the latter was jealous about the young hatter meeting some wizard called Howl, which she herself had her eye on. Sophie then wanders the land in search of the witch, potentially the only one who could reverse the spell at this point, but instead she finds some weird-looking scarecrow who ends up leading her to the titular castle. There, she meets Calcifer, an adorable fire demon, voiced by Billy Crystal in the English version, who agrees to help turn her back into her old... well, young self, rather, if she can help break his own curse. Sophie finds out that Howl, the wizard she met earlier on, uses the castle to change forms and fight his country's war under different identities. He also turns into a bird to interfere with the war, which weakens him and could very much kill him eventually. Sophie decides to help and goes on a mission for Howl, along the way finally meeting the witch that cursed her and an asthmatic dog. A hilarious scene involving all three of them struggling to go up a flight of stairs for ages is one of the film's many highlights. Howl's Moving Castle is another fantastic-looking film and, although it lacks Spirited Away's simplicity, it's still just as surreal and as visually inventive. You've got some really colourful, likeable characters in there and although the story is a little bit more intricate, its core premise is pretty straight-forward and very easy to follow and get into.
This family of cursed beings is one you'd like to see be happy so you want their spells to be reversed and yet their powers and their odd, at times even goofy, forms are so cute that you don't really want them to change. The film could have easily gone for a tragic denouement but it decides to give most of what these random characters want at the end, concluding the whole thing in a more positive tone, which isn't a bad thing even if some might find themselves somewhat alienated by the somewhat abrupt last 5 minutes. Regardless of minor structural flaws here or there, Howl's Moving Castle is still a terrific follow-up to Spirited Away and remains one of Miyazaki's finest creations. That Wallace & Gromit won the Best Animated Feature Oscar instead of it that year is ridiculous but I guess if they're going to include Hayao Miyazaki anime features in that category, Western films would probably not win all that often. Christian Bale voices Howl in the English dub, by the way, and he does a good job at making the wizard sound intense and kinda badass. The film does have heart but doesn't linger on Sophie's plight instead focusing on her courageous determination throughout, which works but, if I were to nitpick, I'd say maybe one or two more moments showing her freaking about potentially losing her entire youth could have added more pathos to the whole thing. As it stands, though, you still feel for the character and the film remains completely satisfying.
Hayao Miyazaki once again knocks it out of the park with a terrific fantasy flick that may not always top people's Studio Ghibli lists but which definitely deserves a watch. Packed full of impressive, detailed animation, memorable characters and clever surrealism, this remains a really fun effort and one of my personal favourites from the director.