Howl's Moving Castle (Japan 2004)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 12/20/08
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

While this film received tons of critical praise, I found it to be one of Miyazaki's lesser films. It's still a beautiful piece full of magic and wonder, but it's lacking in the rich characterizations of Miyazaki's other work. A young and unassuming girl named Sophie falls in love with a dashing wizard named Howl and has a spell cast on her by a jealous rival that turns her into a 90 year-old woman. Trying to make the best of her situation, Sophie manages to become a cleaning woman at Howl's magical moving castle, and soon wins over everyone's hearts. Unfortunately, Howl made a pact with a demon in exchange for his heart, and only Sophie's love and determination can rescue his soul and break her own spell. And all of this is told against the confusing backdrop of a terrible war with a neighboring nation.

Of course, coming from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the animation is stunning. 3D computer animation is put to good use and blends very naturally with the traditional hand drawn elements. Sophie is your typical Miyazaki heroine: cute, fierce, bold, independent, cheerful, optimistic, and overflowing with heart and goodness. However, since she spends the majority of the film as an old crone, it's harder to identify with her and really connect. Her appearance changes constantly throughout the film, making the nature of the curse unclear. In fact, none of the film seems to make any sense at all, and I was constantly struggling with the meandering plot, inconsistent and questionable character behavior, and puzzling plot elements. Much like "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988), the narrative is nearly non-existent and the film is more of a leisurely character study than anything else. On top of that, the film is over two hours long and the pacing is extremely slow. While it does feature some breathtaking moments of magic and romance, it can be challenging to sit through at times.