Well, I didn’t make it through all the Ghibli films before my upcoming trip to Japan and the Ghibli Museum (April 17th, yay!!!).  But I did make it as far as Howl’s Moving Castle, thanks to a couple of obliging friends who submitted themselves to sitting through these two crazy hours of anime with me.

Howl’s has always had a special place in my heart, because it was the first Ghibli film that really hooked me.  But it had been a few years since I’d last seen the film, and I was surprised when I watched it last weekend by how different it is from the rest of the Ghibli canon.  To this day, I find myself a little bewildered by the simple logistics of the film — what the heck is going on, anyways?  But still somehow, despite its confusing logical leaps and occasional absurdities, I just love Howl’s Moving Castle.

First of all, it’s written and directed by Miyazaki, with an incredibly simple and beautiful score from Joe Hisaishi.  The English version voice acting is decent, with Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Calcifer far outshining the rest.  I find Christian Bale’s voice to be perpetually annoying, and it’s no different here, where he lends vocals to Howl himself, who momentarily loses his identity as Bale breaks out his Dark Knight chops and slips into THE bat-voice (I hate the bat-voice).  The animation is beautiful, however, and the characters are delightfully exaggerated and amusing, as is Ghilbli’s wont.

Things fall a little bit apart for me where the plot holes develop.  Don’t get me wrong — Howl’s was my long-standing Ghibli favorite, though now I believe the title must rest once and for all on Totoro (unless some Ghibli film yet-to-be-released might overshadow it).  But I did feel a little disjointed throughout this viewing, because the tone of the film struggles to balance a thoroughly British steam-punk vibe with Ghibli’s characteristically caricatured Japanese flavor.  It might have something to do with the fact that the story is adapted and interpreted from British author Diana Wynne Jones’ novel of the same name.  Still, it’s not a game-changing flaw.  Howl’s Moving Castle is certainly still among Ghibli’s best, in my book, particularly if you’ll let yourself sit back, laugh at its sentimentally- and bizarrely-structured story, and enjoy the richness of Miyazaki’s world.

Additionally, I think the female lead, Sophie, is awesome.  She is easily one of the most level-headed and subdued anime heroines I can think of.  Also, although Howl is an absolute idiot pretty much throughout the film, and her attachment to him seems odd, I like the role that Sophie’s age plays in her perception of Howl and herself throughout the film.  I think it’s saying something interesting about youth and maturity — particularly when Howl’s childishness is taken into account.  But since I have no really developed theory on that account, I’ll merely state that as silly as the film can be at times, I think there’s an undercurrent of substance that I find refreshing, especially among animated fare.

Pros:  Great music, gorgeous animation, Miyazaki, lovable side characters (particularly Turnip-head, Calcifer, and old-lady Witch of the Waste), great female lead, fun and bizarre and humorous story, just a hint of depth

ConsIt gets way sentimental at times, and there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense (what is this crazy war about, who’s that dude that pops up randomly at the end, doesn’t it seem like things wrap up a little too easily, I’m confused).  Also, the film’s portrayal of love could have been genuinely profound, especially as it deals with Sophie’s appearance and Howl’s insecurities, but instead it fails to achieve genuine depth, and remains in the realm of surface-level, emotional affections.

Based on my nostalgia, I really thought this would be the third five-star film on my Ghibli list — but alas, it shall not join My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies with that distinction.  I love the film, though, a whole bunch.  And so, four stars it is!  **** out of *****