Low-budget animated cult classic impresses

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By Phil Brown, Contributor

Hayao Miyazaki, the veteran filmmaker and artist whose career spanned over six decades, retired earlier this year. This made the controversial feature “The Wind Rises,” released in February, his final effort for Studio Ghibli, the animation film studio he co-founded nearly 30 years ago in 1985.
Miyazaki is a living legend in the world of film, and his creations have been internationally successful and acclaimed. There is one small part of the world that Studio Ghibli’s art has not been able to reach until very recently; however, even that territory was finally conquered when this writer obtained a copy of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the fanciful adventure film released a decade ago in 2004.
While it isn’t Studio Ghibli or Miyazaki’s most critically acclaimed work, it’s a beloved favorite of many, and I’d been recommended it. It was my very first Ghibli film, so my expectations were a bit mixed.
As with most animated films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” and the novel of the same name that preceded it are made primarily for children. Since I didn’t watch any of them as a child, there’s a certain element that will inevitably be lost to me as an adult viewer. But at the same time, the studio’s work is renowned for being timeless and transcendent. At any rate, I found the film to be magnificent.
It concerns Sophie, a teenage hatter slaving away in her mother’s hat shop, unnoticed by all around her and persisting with her work because of a sense of duty and perhaps because she isn’t confident that she could do anything else.
After a witch places a curse on her that causes her to transform into a 90-year-old woman, and she goes in search of the one person she thinks can lift the spell: Howl, the flamboyant, elusive wizard who lives in the eponymous Moving Castle (one of the film’s several visual triumphs). The story is all fairy-tale, to be sure. But the artists have imbued it with very strong feelings of regret and longing, and a dark fear of ignorance.
The art is unquestionably, and uniformly, brilliant. Far from the beloved yet too-clean American Disney classics, like “Bambi,” Miyazaki’s work feels lived-in and complete, and the consistency and quality of the visuals gives everything an added weight.
From ugly and threatening villains to achingly beautiful vistas, the art and animation of the film is tied together so smoothly into a singular experience that it is simply irresistible. It feels real, and the emotions running through Miyazaki’s screenplay make themselves felt the more for it.
In many ways, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is like Pixar’s “Up,” another critically-adored animated feature, and one directed and written by Peter Docter, who supervised the English dubbing of “Howl.” In fact, “Up” is essentially “Howl’s Moving Castle,” set in modern day, “real life” America. Both films deal heavily with loss and regret, but are so buoyantly adventurous that the deep emotions don’t bog the viewer down but are still felt strongly. Both films profit from their respective settings.
The fantasy of Howl allows Miyazaki and company to push the boundaries of the experience, while Docter uses the limits of his setting to tell a more tightly-wound, comfortable tale. Both approaches are infinitely rewarding. While “Up” is a great story, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is an incredible experience first and foremost, and one that sticks with you for a long time.

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