Prepare to be dazzled: Hayao Miyazaki is back. After the Oscar success of Spirited Away in 2001 it seemed as though the Japanese writer/director/ animator was taking a well-deserved break, pausing only to conceive and oversee kitty-caper The Cat Returns earlier this year. But no, Miyazaki has been beavering away on this gem and, as Studio Ghibli films are want to do, Howl’s Moving Castle has already broken box-office records in Japan. Now to see what its home country will make of it.
Hang on... home country? Yes. In a strange way Howl is a Brit-flick, for it’s based on the children’s novel by our very own million-selling fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones. Her written worlds mirror Miyazaki’s in many ways, no doubt explaining why the director chose Howl for his next big project – with a tweak here, an airship there and a canvas of flawlessly beautiful artwork, Howl becomes a seamless Anglo-Oriental hybrid.
The story is a standard “love conquers all” fairytale: heroine Sophie (Mortimer) becomes a wizened old crone (voiced by Jean Simmons) and slowly falls for smouldering, vain wizard Howl (Bale). She works to break the spell by making a deal with a fire demon (Billy Crystal, on motormouth form), though her plight doesn’t drive the story. Most of its thrust comes from her richly-drawn surroundings and companions, particularly the marvellous, Gilliam-esque clanking castle. Miyazaki, meanwhile, has indulged his penchant for huge, impressive air-battles but still keeps a tender eye on such personal scenes as two old ladies climbing a flight of stairs and a little boy cleaning out his bedroom.
Howl does suffer from being too long, falling slightly in love with itself towards the end, and – when the finale does come – events are resolved in a whirl of confusing action and exposition. Thankfully, these aren’t sufficient faults to detract from what is arguably one of the finest animated films in years.