Hayao Miyazaki, one of the greatest animation directors to come out of Japan, frequently talks about retirement but somehow never quite commits to it. Which is a good thing, as his latest, Howl's Moving Castle, is another instant classic. It's not on par with his greatest work, such as Spirited Away, but it's certainly a great joyride of imagination.
Sophie (center), a teen-age girl transformed into a 90-year-old woman, finds a new friend when the palace dog, Heen (left), follows her home to the moving castle.
Retirement and mortality are nonetheless on his mind, as the plot of the film follows young Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons at different points), cursed to become a 90-year-old woman by the Witch of the Wastes (Lauren Bacall). Old Sophie takes up residence in the titular castle of the wizard Howl (Christian Bale), a strapping young man with secrets of his own, and she finds herself caught up in plots and schemes going back centuries.
There's a plot - technically - about Howl finding his heart and running away from the supreme sorceress of the land and blah blah blah, but that's not the point of this movie. It's about the moments in between, opening your eyes to a world of wonder and unexpected beauty that crops up in the most surprising places. It's about letting go of fear and doubt and hate and stepping unflinchingly into a higher state of being. It's also about the Power of Love, carving out a place for yourself in the world and assembling True Family out of a bunch of strays, no matter how dysfunctional.
And since this is Miyazaki, it's just not complete without airships, cute critters, evil blob beasts, faceless war without end, Wizard of Oz references galore and snarky commentary on monarchy.
The enormous cast of sidekicks includes a bouncing scarecrow (despite its utter lack of facial features, it's the most appealing inanimate sidekick since the rug in Aladdin), and Billy Crystal as a neurotic fireplace critter. Some of the best fun in the movie, at least for lovers of classic film, comes from listening to Jean Simmons and Lauren Bacall sniping at each other in several exchanges - divas to the last.
Visually, of course, it's absolutely stunning. The castle can be compared to another giant moving anime structure from this year, the steam castle at the core of Steamboy, but with a different purpose: an example of the power of imagination and creativity over soulless technology.
Your homework assignment for this week is to watch Howl's Moving Castle as a double bill with Batman Begins. Have fun comparing Christian Bale's dueling performances playing a pair of similarly charming borderline psychopaths. Also, go out and take a look at the criminally underappreciated The Castle of Cagliostro. It has little to do with this movie besides Miyazaki as director, but it's great fun and an early example of this master's work.