the story: A young woman inadvertently stumbles into a great conflict.
what it's all about: The films of Hayao Miyazaki are routinely rated as some of the best of the modern era. Miyazaki is a Japanese animation director. Whether or not you consider his work part of the overall Japanese anime scene may affect whether or not you've seen his work. I've long known about his reputation, but until recently catching Howl's Moving Castle my practical experience with Miyazaki was limited to Princess Mononoke, which to my mind is easily associated with the overall Japanese anime scene, which I've determined after a number of movies is not really my thing. As it turns out, Howl's Moving Castle isn't much like the overall Japanese anime scene. But I'm still not convinced about Miyazaki.
Like Pixar, Miyazaki seems to get a free pass from critics. If he's got something new, chances are more than good that critics will love it. I can appreciate general admiration. I've got actors and directors I'll always be interested in. The problem becomes if you like a specific movie regardless of its own merits. I don't think Pixar is a perfect movie engine, and I now have two experiences with Miyazaki that have failed to overly impress me.
Don't get me wrong; Howl's Moving Castle earns a lot of points from me for being a clear break from the anime scene. Its instincts are almost completely different, and generally they are quite charming, too. In fact, charm is Howl's greatest advantage. It's clearly an inventive work, even if it's based on a book. (Can we please retire the nonsense of adaptation somehow not equating with creativity?) It's got some truly fun characters in it, too.
A lot of its appeal for me is that Howl's is basically an Oz story. No, not Oz as in Judy Garland, or even as in the horribly unappreciated Return to Oz. Oz as in the L. Frank Baum books. I finally read through all of them a few years back, and I was thoroughly enchanted. If you've seen Howl's then you already have an idea about what Baum's Oz was like. That's what I mean. But where Baum was always light on his feet, Howl's is leaden.
As example I'll spend the remainder of my review talking about Howl himself. Maybe this is really a criticism of the Hollywood dubbing of the movie, but even the appearance of Howl himself is a criticism of Miyazaki's vision. Howl is one of the few characters in the movie who looks like he was ripped directly from a manga, a Japanese comic. Manga and anime are virtually indistinguishable in their instincts. In the Hollywood dubbing, Howl is voiced by Christian Bale. In 2004, Bale had yet to reach the height of his fame. He was one year away from playing Batman. He was best known for American Psycho, four years earlier. I have yet to see that one. I wonder if he uses a voice similar to the one he employs for Howl. If so...
The problem most people have with Bale's Batman is his voice. If Bale had used that voice as Bruce Wayne, too, there would have been a real problem. He doesn't. As Howl, it's basically as if Bale had used his Batman voice the whole film. It's not appealing. As an entire performance, it's distracting. By way of contrast, Billy Crystal as the fire demon is terrific. I couldn't even place the voice until I saw Crystal's name in the credits. I was convinced it was Kevin Spacey. In 2004, Crystal was already ebbing in popularity. Actually, the fire demon is Crystal's last notable role, not counting the Monsters, Inc. sequel. In contrast, Bale's career grew considerably following Howl's.
Bale's Howl is not only a bad performance, it's bad casting. He doesn't sound anything like you'd expect Howl to sound like, based on his design. With this one element, it becomes harder to see why Howl's is seen as anything other than an imaginative experience. There's certainly nothing wrong with imaginative films experiences. As an animated film, though, vocal performances are crucial. Even if it's not a celebrity, it can't be distracting in a bad way. Crystal is an example of a vocal performance being distracting in a good way; Emily Mortimer and Lauren Bacall are examples of vocal performances that don't draw attention to themselves so much as exist as elements of the movie. They work, they're functional, and that's all you need to know.
In sum? Interesting. Could have been better.