From director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) and based on the novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle is the story of a girl named Sophie who, cursed by an evil witch, leaves her home town and stumbles into, you guessed it, adventure. She takes shelter in a castle, which isn't so much a castle as it is a mishmash of houses and pieces of metal, that moves by steam power. The castle is inhabited by Howl, a wizard rumored to eat the hearts of pretty young girls, and a couple of his friends.
Meanwhile, there's a war going on, and all magically-inclined folks are called upon to fight alongside a bevy of neat-looking steampunk contraptions. Howl, living in two places at once because of his moving magical castle, is summoned by both warring kingdoms. Or at least it appeared that way early on. Later it seems that he was only summoned by one of them. It's an easily forgivable gaffe because the war is a side story. As with most Miyazaki flicks, the story is about the characters.
Sophie is a quiet girl with very low self esteem. She doesn't think she's pretty, so when she finds herself transformed into an old woman, it seems to suit her. But she's spunky. All Miyazaki heroines are spunky. It's a law. Howl, who's also been cursed somehow, comes across as somewhat selfish, but he's got a good heart, really. And he's really pretty. The real star of the characters, for me, is the fire demon Calcifer, voiced in the English dub by Billy Crystal. Calcifer is almost unbearably cute, and he steals every scene he's in. All of them are pretty much standard fare for Miyazaki, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable. They're all fantastic characters. Howl refers to them all as his family even before things really get moving, and by the end, they really do seem like a family. It's fun to watch their interactions.
Unfortunately, the plot isn't as much fun. It seemed at first to want to be about how Sophie and Howl go about removing their respective curses. Then the background war plot tried to take over, and I didn't exactly buy it. Of course, the hardships of the war serve to show the true character of Howl, Sophie and the others, which in turn leads to their ultimate goals of living curse-free lives. It felt pieced together and a little forced, but then the screen would fill with cuteness, and I cared a lot less about the cohesiveness of the plot. This fault doesn't make it a bad movie by any means; it's just not nearly as strong as it could have been. I couldn't help but wonder if part of that weakness was due to the fact that it's a very British story filtered through a Japanese perspective. I plan on picking up the book at some point to see if it works better there.
Howl's Moving Castle is certainly not one of Miyazaki's best films. If you go into it thinking it's going to be anything like Spirited Away, you will be disappointed. However, if you're just looking to spend some time enjoying pretty animation and great characters and don't mind a somewhat faulty plot, you could do a lot worse than this one.