A parable on war, an English fairy tale style setting, and a weird subtext mixture as only the Japanese can do it - "Howl's Moving Castle" is the latest effort from acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki. Although lacking that touch of genius that pushed efforts like "Spirited Away" and "Castle in the Sky" into film classic territory, its nevertheless another example of how this film maven easily holds the crown in the sadly ever shrinking traditional animation genre.
Much of the reason for that stranglehold goes to the man's poetic visuals which once again blends the everyday with the fantastically twisted quite effectively. The story effortlessly glides between wild moments of sinister mythology, war on an epic scale, quiet moments of beauty or reflection, and slightly comic interludes. It's such a richly textured world, populated with a wide variety of distinctive and unique characters that despite some narrative mishandling (especially towards the rushed ending), it's a place one would love to visit.
On top of the great visuals, Miyazaki crafts an interesting story about a young girl affected by a curse, a young man with strange powers, a young boy, a dog, a witch, a talking fire, a scarecrow and the castle itself. Thanks to a great sense of pacing which allows characters to breathe and feel fully fleshed out, we learn about each of these unique people who remain true to their own way. Whilst the main characters aren't as compelling or interesting as the various ones that populated "Spirited Away" they are quite memorable in their own little way.
As usual, the film will be mostly embraced by adults even though its designed to appeal to all audiences. Like "Spirited" there's moments that the kids will go gaga over, moments that seem purely designed for adults, and moments that all ages will just scratch their heads and wonder what's going on. Like David Lynch, Miyazaki's films at times descends into a place where little makes sense and you must go with the flow. Thankfully though he understands the need for a narrative more than Lynch and thus whilst some aspects will leave you left wondering, all the major plot points are relatively easy to follow.
If you can see the original Japanese version of the film. The US voice cast is not particularly compelling or interesting, rarely inflecting the same emotional intentions that make the subtitled version the always superior beast. More than his others, the central narrative here feels a little limp despite being based on a more traditional and rigidly structured English fable. Whilst things seem easy to follow early on, the last 20 minutes or so of the film are quite confusing and leave for a solid if unsatisfying conclusion. It nevertheless is artistry in motion - pure Miyazaki that stands tall and above anything we've seen in the animation genre since last year's "The Incredibles".