Sophie is a timid young woman who spends her day in a small shop making hats and watching the trains that roll past her window. However, after a marketplace encounter with a mysterious and magical stranger, she finds herself cursed by the Witch of the Wastes, her body bent and aged like a 90-year old woman’s. The Witch is a rival of Howl, a powerful wizard who happens to be the stranger Sophie encountered in the market, and wants her to deliver a message to him. Sophie sets out and finds Howl’s home roaming the countryside between two warring kingdoms like a steam-driven Baba Yaga’s Hut. It’s here that Sophie manages to integrate herself into Howl’s life, hoping to find a way to reverse the Witch of the Wastes’ curse. Howl is being sought by the leaders of both kingdoms for his aid in their war, but Howl just wants to be left alone.
From almost any other director, a film like Howl’s Moving Castle would be considered a career high point. It has an imaginative story filled with well-defined characters and skillfully rendered animation. But this is a film by Japanes director Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps one of the greatest storytellers to have ever worked in animation, so a different level of excellence is demanded. For Miyazaki, whose career has been almost nothing but high points, Howl’s is a surprising disappointment. While it is a good film, it is not up to the level we’ve come to expect from him. Compared to his recent films – Princess Mononoke (1997) and the Oscar winning Spirited Away (2001) – Howl’s Moving Castle seems unfocused. There are long stretches of the film that don’t advance either the plot or the characters. Although it is the shortest of his recent films, its comparatively slow pace make it feel as though it’s the longest.
The usual tropes of Miyazaki’s films are all on display here- the strange world that combines magic and technology, a lead character with the mysterious past, the preoccupation with flying, a character who is not as evil as they first appear. However, their use here doesn’t seem quiet as inspired as in previous films. While these elements are not used poorly, they do not seem to sparkle with the same verve that one is used to seeing in a Miyazaki film.
While it may not live up to the standards set by the predecessors on Miyazaki’s filmography, Howl’s Moving Castle is still a film worth seeing, if only for the design and skillful animation. In an area where traditional hand-drawn animation is being shunned by American studios in favor of sleek computer generated imagery, Miyazaki’s work stands out for its craftsmanship and attention to detail. He doesn’t completely shun the possibilities offered by digital animation, using a computer to manipulate hand-drawn elements such as Howl’s lumbering home, proving that even when he stumbles, Miyazaki still can produce a film that is probably better than what most domestic studios typically offer.