Howl's Moving Castle (movie, 2004)

You know how you watch the annual Oscars® telecast and notice a few clips of some animated films you’ve never heard of and think that you would want to see these movies? Well, thanks to Netflix, you can add them to your queue on the spot, and eventually they’ll show up in your mail.

Apparently that’s why we recently received Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), the 2006 winner for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year. It was cute and all, but we couldn’t finish it. It really is for children.

We did manage to sit through one of the other nominees, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), mostly because this film features some truly spectacular cartoon visuals.

I know absolutely nothing about anime beyond having enjoyed the occasional Speed Racer or Gigantor episode as a kid. I had never heard of director Hayao Miyazaki prior to this, but his imagination is breathtaking and apparently he has turned out a number of animated masterpieces.

Unfortunately, Howl’s Moving Castle is not one of them. The plot, adapted from a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, involves a normal woman who is drawn into sorcerer Howl’s rickety behemoth of a “castle,” which wanders the countryside on mechanical legs. There she must cope in his world of spells, shapeshifting, and clashes with other sorcerers amid wartime tensions between two kingdoms. These fairly standard elements are never focused into a crisp and compelling story. Instead, they remain distant and vague, like a secret being kept from the viewer, which is kind of annoying.

More annoying is the character voiced by Billy Crystal, a talking home fire called Calcifer. Nothing can rip the veil of mystical sorcery like Crystal’s grating New York neuroticism emanating from the hearth. He belongs in some other picture. Also, although the movie’s graphics are amazing, they are uneven. Some of the city scenes — and even characters like Calcifer and Sophie — are drawn in a warm and fuzzy Disneyesque style that clashes with the hard anime edges of, say, a winged and feathered Howl soaring through the night sky during a horrific bombing campaign.

Still, I enjoyed the eye candy, and might like to see some of the other Miyazaki films noted in Roger Ebert’s on-target review. I’m rating this a neutral 3 out of 5 at Netflix, because 3.5 is not an option.