There seems to be a misconception that Japanese animation is completely distinct and removed from its Western counterparts to the point of outright hostility. While the visual sensibilities of Pixar and Dreamworks don't reflect anime traditions, there is a greater exchange of styles and stories that one might expect. This is supported by the fact that it was John Lasseter, the creator of Toy Story, who first brought Hayao Miyazaki's work to American audiences.
This cross-pollination of cultures is evident in both Spirited Away (which won Miyazaki an Oscar) and the follow-up Howl's Moving Castle. Where Spirited Away took the central idea of The Wizard of Oz (written by an American) and completely reinvented it, this film takes a Welsh novel and gives it the classic Miyazaki twist. The result is a very loose adaptation of Diane Wynne Jones' novel which has all the familiar Miyazaki trappings - it's filled with wonder, beautiful, and totally, lovably bonkers.
If you try to write out the plot of one of Miyazaki's films, you would quickly have to give up, either because of their complexity or for their tendency to seem like total nonsense when viewed in abstract. There's certainly a lot in Howl's Moving Castle which makes one laugh, if out of surprise as much as genuine humour. Quite apart from a metal castle which walks around the hilly landscape, we have a scarecrow that comes to life (another Oz reference), a boy who becomes an old man by putting on a cloak, and of course a talking fire (voiced by Billy Crystal in the English language version).
As we have come to expect from Miyazaki, the animation is spectacularly beautiful and manages to marry an old-fashioned, hand-drawn aesthetic with more modern, CG-orientated techniques. Being a deliberately loose adaptation, the director doesn't make a concerted effort to situate us in a specific time and place; indeed that would be rather futile, since the doors of the house can lead to anywhere.
What we are given is a beautifully crafted, fantastical setting with heavy overtones of steampunk, a world which seems green and tranquil one minute and dark and aggressive the next. Howl's secret garden, with meadows filled with flowers and the mill with its slow-turning water wheel, is counterpointed by the battle scenes in the clouds, with Howl in bird form dodging missiles and strangely impossible aeroplanes being blown to smithereens. If we insist on imposing a time period, we seem to be in the early-20th century due to the presence of imperial regalia. It's not quite Wales, not quite continental Europe, and we're certainly not in Japan.
For all its beauty, there is an appealing sense of the grotesque to Howl's Moving Castle. There's nothing approaching the darkness of Spirited Away or moments of Princess Mononoke, and the film's U certificate means there's nothing that will terrify very young children. But the animation is so organic and perfectly weighted that when the moments come they are emphasised. The blob-men who can seep through cracks in doors are incredibly creepy, as is the Wicked Witch of the Wastes herself (Oz again). When we first meet the Witch, she is simply intimidating. But by the time she has climbed all those steps, bathed in sweat and the fat rings becoming more apparent, there is very little about her that does not send a shiver down one's spine.
For the most part, however, these sequences are balanced out by moments of genuine magic. The film doesn't waste time in introducing magic to Sophie's otherwise mundane life: by the ten-minute mark she has befriended a wizard and walked over the rooftops on thin air. The first time we see Calcifer, as two amorphous eyes peeping out from the ashes, we can't quite believe what we are seeing. The film has such a natural touch when it comes to the magical or supernatural that we feel instantly absorbed, and that has a much more powerful effect than any amount of dry exposition.
But the heart of Howl's Moving Castle is rooted not so much in magic but in a great story about ageing, love and the burden of having a heart. Western culture is obsessed with youth and staying young at all costs: while experience is rewarded, old age is frowned upon as something unwanted, and the elderly are often regarded as being obsolete. How fantastic, then, to have a children's film in which the central protagonist, who rapidly ages against her will, ends up embracing her advanced years and seeing all the good in her new-found state?
When we first meet Sophie, she is drifting through life unsure what to make of herself. Her older sister berates her for not looking out for herself, and she seems lonely and unsuited to life as a hat-maker. When the Witch of the Waste first casts the spell on her, her reaction is largely one of panic, followed by funny consolations that "everything will be alright". But despite her considerable physical handicap, Sophie is not the type to sit around moping. Her age does not prevent her from either having adventures or saving those around her. When her youth is restored at the end of the film, her hair remains grey as a reminder of this precious knowledge of the value of age.
Against this example of good will and charity, we have the character of Howl, a man of immense abilities and good looks but who is also distant and haughty. One of his very first conversations with Sophie inside the castle sees him screaming at her for mixing up the lotions, causing him to accidentally dye his hair. Howl dresses like the anime equivalent of a New Romantic, and his affection for Sophie appears to come from a desire more than anything to show off.
As the film wears on, however, we discover more about Howl's past and our opinion of him becomes more adjusted. The beautiful sequence of Howl catching Calcifer and swallowing a fallen star makes his predicament more tragic, and sets up a change in all that has gone before. Under normal circumstances this time travel plot point would seem like a clunky deus ex machina, but here it is handled sensitively and feels seamlessly integrated. Howl regains his heart and realises he must adjust to a life built around empathy; he may still have his powers, but now he is more aware of their consequences and his ability to use them for more than selfish gain.
The film also deserves praise for the quality of its English language dub. The film is easy enough to understand through subtitles, but if one insists upon a dub then this is of a very high quality. The recording, which was personally supervised by Lasseter, took longer than expected because of the engineers getting wrapped up in the story. Whenever clips would be played back, they would spend so much time enjoying the film that they would forget to check the levels or that it had synced correctly. What more proof do you need?
There are a couple of small weaknesses with the film which prevent it from being a classic. The tone of Miyazaki's work is often very whimsical, and there are moments in which one's tolerance for such whimsy is tested. In the last half hour the story starts to run out of steam as all the threads are tied up, and the revelation about Turnip Head's true identity doesn't completely hold up when you consider what comes straight afterwards.
In all though, Howl's Moving Castle is a very good piece of animation with all the magic of Miyazaki's previous work and the spirit of the original novel. Its characters are well-rounded and engaging, and even when watched purely as escapism it never fails to make you smile. Despite its little flaws, which prevent it from being top-flight Miyazaki fare, it retains a radiance and playful joy which will guarantee that it ages well. It's not Spirited Away, but it's still really, really good.