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By Pete Vonder Haar | June 18, 2005

Animation demigod Hayao Miyazaki has returned for the first time since 2001’s Oscar-winning “Spirited Away” with “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the story of a young girl on a mission, a petulant wizard, a turnip-headed scarecrow, a witch, and a dog. Sound familiar? “Castle,” unlike much of Miyazaki’s recent feature work, is based on source material created by someone other than Miyazaki himself. In this case, the film is a loose adaptation of a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, and while the animation is everything you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, the story itself is a bit sparse, and audiences may find themselves somewhat less than enchanted.

In “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the action centers around Sophie, a young girl who – after a chance encounter with the legendary Howl himself – is cursed with old age by the evil Witch of the Waste. Unsure what else to do, Sophie heads off into the wild to hunt for Howl’s legendary moving castle. She’s joined on her journey by a turnip-headed scarecrow she dubs “Turnip Head” (didn’t see that one coming, I bet), but it doesn’t take her long to find the castle and take up residence as Howl’s cleaning lady.

Meanwhile, the two principal countries in the land have gone to war over a missing prince, and Howl has been summoned to fight for both kings (he maintains residences in both nations using his castle’s nifty inter-dimensional gateway capabilities). A strong, if simplistic, anti-war message pervades the film, as Howl takes to the air in winged form to do battle with the airships dropping bombs on innocent people. He’s in his own race against time, however, as every transformation leaves him weaker and makes it more difficult for him to revert to human form. Naturally, it’s up to Sophie to unlock the secret to both her and Howl’s curses and set things right.

Just to get it out of the way, the visuals in “Howl’s Moving Castle” are superb, far surpassing anything we’ve seen, animation-wise, since “The Incredibles” (which, I admit, is really comparing apples and oranges). The detail is as elaborate as ever, and the setting – a combination of Victorian England and “The Jetsons,” with wizards thrown in for good measure – is rendered in loving fashion. But the art isn’t the problem here, the story is (as is the voice talent, which – apart from Billy Crystal – is mostly flat and uninspired). A compelling story is the main ingredient missing from “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Compared to the layered narratives in “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke,” the tale being spun in “Castle” is far too simplistic and predictable. There are interesting touches, to be sure, and “Castle” hints at some truly dark subject matter behind the fluff, but this is the only recent Miyazaki film I wouldn’t unreservedly recommend to adults as well as children.

Thinking about it, I blame Miyazaki himself. If the man hadn’t made one of the finest animated movies of all time a few short years ago, his latest effort wouldn’t suffer so much by comparison. As it is, movies like “Spirited Away” and “Castle in the Sky” have set the bar ridiculously high. It’s perhaps unfair to expect perfection every time, and while “Howl’s Moving Castle” is far from perfect, it’s still a very good movie. It’s just not a great one..

And that’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to giving a bad review to a Miyazaki film.

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