Usually, starting a Hayao Miyazaki film means you’re in for a great ride, and "Howl’s Moving Castle" is certainly no exception. Based on a children’s novel by English author Diana Wynne Jones, it was Miyazaki ’s follow-up to 2001’s "Spirited Away", which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Unlike that film, it is completely set in a fantasy world where witches, wizards and magic are accepted though still wondrous facets of everyday life. The main character is Sophie, a girl lacking self-esteem who works in a hat shop. After a chance encounter with a notorious witch, she is cursed with the body of an old woman and subsequently flees her home city. Before long, she finds herself within the towering, bulky, walking fortress of the film’s title; keeping company with Markl, a young servant, Calcifer, a fire demon, and the wizard Howl himself. From there, Sophie is off from one adventure to the next, her journey unfolding in a marvelous feast for the eyes.
In "Howl’s Moving Castle", Miyazaki displays his gift for invention using the same smooth and vibrant animation style as "Spirited Away". His new, imaginary world is chock full of the most fantastic contraptions and thingamajigs; particularly the many flying machines that buzz, hover and float throughout the film. The story in fact takes place during a great war between two kingdoms, adding an element of constant danger to Sophie and Howl’s travels. The many marauding airships, falling bombs, sea-borne battleships and formations of uniformed soldiers all bring to mind World War II imagery, especially in one scene in which a city is mercilessly firebombed, consumed by red flames, black smoke and flurries of glowing cinders. Though not as direct or graphic as "Barefoot Gen" or "Grave of the Fireflies", the parallels are clearly there, inviting a consideration of serious themes within this children’s film.
Thankfully, "Howl’s Moving Castle" remains just that from beginning to end: a children’s film, albeit one of superior intelligence and quality than most of what’s usually aimed towards younger audiences. Spending most of the film trapped in her old lady form (and humorously posing as a housekeeper for the rather messy moving castle), Sophie carries out a number of tasks that, in typical Miyazaki fashion, test her character and loyalty as she helps Howl and his crew accomplish their various goals. Rich with imagination, "Howl’s Moving Castle" is yet another priceless treat from Japan ’s master of animation.