I like good animations, and Dreamworks as well as some of the Japanese anime can rank at the top. Recently I went through a binge of animation films. Shark Tale and the Monster House weren’t very good, the first being a bad excuse for a cliched plot and fish that acted and moved more like humans than fish. Monster House had some hackneyed stereotypes, iffy reactions and a bizarre plot that didn’t quite suspend my disbelief, even though it was a cartoon. On the other hand, Howl’s Moving Castle was a delight and a wonder.
When I was a kid animations were the flat and wooden two-dimensional characters, and at best the rotoscoped movements used in the earlier feature length films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. With computerization and complex graphics, the world of animation opened up. That doesn’t mean every three-dimensional claymation such as Wallace and Gromit is great because it uses new and/or different techniques (though claymation isn’t that new either). What really makes any animated film is the story and the characterization. It’s one reason Wallace and Gromit were so funny; the characters look goofy and get into all sorts of madcap adventures based on their wacky inventions.
The 2004 Howl’s Moving Castle is based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It isn’t really a forerunner of new techniques but went on to be one of the most successful animes ever. It uses painted backdrops and the standard two dimensional style in characters, with shading. The style is classic Japanese with the cartoonish eyes and antics, to some degree. But the movements are far more fluid and the images are beautiful. On top of that, the imagination in Howl’s is fantastic. The moving castle is this weird house on legs, part alive, part machine, part home. It’s rambling, chaotic and magical and opens on different times and places.
Sophie is a shy young woman who accidentally runs into Howl and is saved but subsequently is cursed by the Witch of the Wastes. Turned into an old woman she leaves the life she knows and ends up at Howl’s castle, bringing discipline and order to the chaos. Howl, like many wizards, has a reputation of being scary and self-serving but he is also extremely vain and there is a reason for this. The castle slowly gathers a host of characters including an asthmatic dog, a devoted scarecrow, the Witch of the Wastes and the castle’s denizens, Calcifer the fire elemental who keeps the house alive, and Markl the apprentice.
I can’t say much is predictable in this delightful film except for the inevitable romance. It is a tale of discovering one’s self, confidence, heroics, and fear. And it is a tale of war and peace, Miyazaki’s own pacifist twist on the wizard’s involvement. I loved this film so much that I’ll be watching it again next week. I would give this movie 9.5 out of 10 on the wizard scale and it’s worth watching for the beautiful scenery alone. If you like anime, it’s one of the best.