Hauru no ugoku shiro [Howl’s Moving Castle] (2004)

(On Blu-ray, March 2016) At a time when live-action fantasy movies seem extruded from the same base elements, it’s difficult to overstate the refreshing impact of a more original kind of fantasy. Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t your usual kind of fantasy movie by virtue of drawing upon two different sources of inspiration: Diana Wynne Jones’s original novel, filtered through the unique sensibilities of legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. The result certainly isn’t perfect, and it shows clear signs of creaking where the novel meets the original material brought by Miyazaki, but it’s enjoyable for trying to do something unusual. Part of the difference is one of tone: Even though there is a war going on in the background of the story, much of Howl’s Moving Castle is concerned with domestic issues as basic as cleaning up, keeping a fire running and making meals. The heroine, a teenager abruptly cursed into the body of an older woman, keeps an impeccable sense of humour even at the worst of times. This is a very well-intentioned film: It’s hard to avoid noticing how it makes a sympathetic character out of an initial antagonist, and spends a considerable amount of time healing the emotional wounds of its title figure. As with much Japanese animation, the tonal shifts aren’t always smooth to western audiences. This being said, the English dubbed version is terrific and retains much of its accessibility throughout. The result is an animated fantasy film that may not be conventionally accessible to younger kids, but more than holds up as a fantasy film for older adults. While other Miyazaki movies often earn more critical attention, Howl’s Moving Castle is terrific, even when considered as a relatively less important entry in his filmography.

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