Seamless mixtures of passionate animation and fantastical elements conjured up by the wizards behind the camera make just about every Studio Ghibli project a worthwhile experience. Even their duds have clear strokes of emotion and creativity, at least their earlier works do anyway. So long as we as a collective are set to disregard Earwig and the Witch, most would admit to the near-squeaky clean record these titans of animation have managed to present. Howl’s Moving Castle, for that and many other reasons, is a welcome experience that marks the second Hayao Miyazaki-helmed Ghibli project of the 21st century. For Ghibli, this is a traditional turn of events that bring witchcraft and whimsy to the big screen, but something is missing, that spark of perfection has faded, naturally, but here is where it can be felt frequently.
That is not to say Howl’s Moving Castle is poor or uneventful. A thoroughly rewarding experience that will charm audiences and pull favouritism from those who mark their first experience with the self-indulgent wizards and shy companions found in this bold and striking animated piece. No surprise here, the animation is stellar and pushes the envelope once more. Miyazaki’s boundary-pushing direction is a major consistency, and it is here that Ghibli revel in some of their most creative, memorable designs. The titular castle itself is marvellous, a lumbering monstrosity from the steampunk era of fantasy, gelling well with the placid landscapes and the modernised cities and towns around it.
A blur of the fantasy charms and inevitable modernity is attempted here, not fully, but with enough of both for the mixture to be engaging. Ghibli have always managed this, in past projects and those that would follow Howl’s Moving Castle. Whether it was the broom-flying antics of Kiki’s Delivery Service or the horrid weeks of placid boredom gelling with the creatures of the deep forest with My Neighbour Totoro. Each, clearly, has something to offer. Howl’s Moving Castle has little beyond its design and pocket full of flair. It is the castle itself that can be remembered and adored by audiences, rather than the characters who reside within. They are not the most memorable of subjects. In fact, the story itself isn’t all that specific or incredible, just the usual bashful protagonist finding themselves comfortably in over their heads.
Still, there is comfort to be had in predictability. At times, it is all that matters. Miyazaki could spin this style for years to come, and the minute differences in topic and backdrop are enough for creatively rewarding spectacles that will nurture and cherish the love an audience offers. What little can be offered in the way of original thematics is drowned out with a recognisably grand animation style that doesn’t quite have the story to match such impressive layers. It is not the conflict or emotional turmoil that is remembered of these characters, but of the stunning worldbuilding Miyazaki presents. That only takes an audience so far, though, and in the instance of Howl’s Moving Castle, that is not quite far enough.