Howl's Moving Castle
The film, based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, stars a hard-working milliner named Sophie (voiced by Emily Porter in the English dub) in industrial-age Europe. The location and time of the film are described vaguely by the presence of a queen and king, mechanical objects and vehicles, and a mysterious, nightmarish war.
Sophie, intelligent yet somewhat reserved, runs into the handsome man-child wizard Howl (Christian Bale) who is kind-hearted but still has a few things to learn about life. "He only goes after pretty girls," Sophie is warned by her cutesy, heavily made-up sister, Lettie.
If traces of a classic love story between two people from different worlds are appearing, do not worry. As in his previous work, Miyazaki successfully entertains and takes the movie's spectators to strange, exquisitely drawn places while saying a few things about love along the way. Howl, for one, is not just a boy who needs to learn how to love, he is a powerful wizard whose skills are requested by the queen to win the war. He runs away from his worldly problems, the ones he does not want to face, in his moving castle.
Such is the world of Miyazaki, symbolically layered yet accessible to anyone who just wants to experience a good story. Howl's Moving Castle's naturalistic, traditionally drawn animation is top-notch and is combined seamlessly with a few (mostly mechanical) elements that are computer generated (more so than Spirited Away). What remains baffling is how Miyazaki's hand-drawn characters deliver so much emotion without calling attention to their simple design, even though they are constantly contrasted by incredibly rich and detailed scenery. The answer to that is the work of Studio Ghibli's master animators, and the writing, which make this animated film highly engaging although it does not feature a lot of action and adventure (unlike 1997's Princess Mononoke).
There is a noteworthy scene in this film that takes place on a stairway leading to the royal palace. In it, old Sophie and the Witch of the Waste (also elderly) climb the stairs to meet with the queen to discuss the war. The action is minimal, since the ladies walk very slowly, but the looks and the lines the two women exchange in this scene are most expressive. The way Miyazaki shows these two elderly ladies making their way up the stairs, unassisted by the royal guards, is incredibly moving and entertaining—a memorable scene in the history of animated film and of fiction films in general.
Howl's Moving Castle contains Western and Eastern fairy tale imagery (Sophie's curse, the fire demon Calcifer—voiced by Billy Crystal—who is responsible for Howl's moving sanctuary) but it resonates in its audience as the work of a single visionary. Miyazaki is an author filmmaker concerned with recurring themes (coming of age, nature, absence of parents), mood (strange yet optimistic) and characters (a strong feminine presence); this is what differentiates his work from that of a company that has merely discovered a successful formula.