Director - Hayao Miyazaki
If there is one thing you can confidently say about Studio Ghibli it is that they make beautiful looking films. Whether it is the masses of fish swimming about in Ponyo or the spirits which mill about in Spirited Away, their films look amazing, deep and layered with gloriously populated and immensely imaginative worlds. It is the same with Howl's Moving Castle, particularly the titular castle itself. From the first time we watch it clanking through the countryside, I was entranced. It is the attention to detail with all the individual moving components which make it so refreshing to watch:
Watch the trailer's opening sequence (also the film's opening sequence) as the castle emerges from the fog.
Every frame of the film could be printed off and stuck on your wall. Glorious.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film isn't as strong as the excellent visuals. The film sort of plods along with a story that manages to be vague and far too complex. Sophie's curse (at the heart of the story) is clear enough, but it is interwoven with something about a war and wizards turning into birds and Howl's heart and having to hide from the witch of the waste. It is, really, nonsense and I spent large moments of the film not understanding what was going. This is on my 4th viewing. I don't expect new people to get it at all.
The story isn't moved along by the characters either. It doesn't bode well that the films most likable character is a silent scarecrow with a fixed stupid grin and little to no movement. Everyone else is grumpy, rude or just plain non-eventful.
Howl is the guiltiest, he seems rude, shallow, sulky and really really boring. He is also barely in the film - more of a presence in the background of proceedings who occasionally swooshes in during his Black Swan birdman moments. He doesn't really show any compassion until one big move in the film's final act. But by then, Sophie has fallen in love with him, it is a romance which is used to explain a lot of their actions but which is itself, not that clearly explained. Much like many of the plot points in this film, they just happen. Deal with it.
It is a shame that the story is so lacking, because the film is a pleasure to watch, you just have to entirely disconnect your ears and watch it as a purely visual aesthetic set in a delightful steam punky world. A steam punky world with WIZARDS! Surely the best kind of steam punk world.
But yeah, much like Howl himself, the film looks good, but the intentions and details are muddled or just dull.