Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is often, and rightly, compared to Walt Disney. His films, and those produced by his collaborators at Studio Ghibli, have become beloved favorites around the world, charming children and adults alike in their homeland and beyond. Usually whimsical and sometimes grotesque, the films of Miyazaki and Ghibli are upheld by popular and professional audiences as pinnacles in animation art. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Disney company acquired the global distribution rights to Ghibli’s films, or that Disney/Pixar animation head John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki share a personal friendship.
Miyazaki’s films feature several recurring themes that, sometimes ahead of their time, have helped his films to capture the imaginations of the theatregoing public. Growing up during and in the aftermath of WWII, the subject of warfare and its human costs have imprinted themselves on Miyazaki, his work, and that of Studio Ghibli. Having essentially instigated the conflict in the Pacific theatre and then losing it in dramatic and apocalyptic fashion, Japan has been given a unique voice in telling the story of war. Though not produced by Miyazaki, Grave of the Fireflies - a gutwrenching WWII survival story of Japanese children orphaned by American bombers – was the only Ghibli film for which Disney did not pursue distribution rights.
War, then, figures highly in most of Miyazaki’s films. His pentultimate film, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), based on the novel series by Diana Wynne Jones, deals with love and war as a young girl, Sophie, is transformed into a 90-year old hag by the wicked Witch of the Waste, in order to trap the master sorcerer Howl. Howl hangs his hat in the titular moving castle: a jumble of metal and machinery powered by the demonic fire of Calcifer, a shooting star whose life Howl saved and with whom he now shares a symbiotic relationship.
Against the developing story (and affections) between Sophie and the vain, insensitive Howl is the background of war fought between two kingdoms of this alternate earth-like setting. One of the magical properties of the moving castle is that it holds portals to a “magic shop” façade present in each of the countries embroiled in violence. Initially eschewing the violence, Howl is eventually sucked in. Fighting in the form of a giant, black bird-of-prey, he and Sophie fear that the price to his own soul may become so great that he can never change back to his human self.
Howl's Moving Castle forms an unfortunately harried swan song for the master animator. Production problems pulled Miyazaki out of a retirement he had already announced in order to meet the film's deadline. Whether a product of this crisis or a fault of the source material, the film lacks the same cohesion of Miyazaki's other work. The story bolts from one place to another and attempts to fold in elements from the novel, even in the closing minutes of the movie, that give it the feeling of an adaptation done on the fly. Watching it and having these scenes and characters sprung on you, you know that there's probably a good reason for it in the Wynne Jones novel, but it is sorely absent in the finished film. Perhaps these contributed to Miyazaki's decision to continue with his next film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.
It is still a Hayao Miyazaki work, however, full of wimsy, wonder, grotesqueries and magic. But it is a footnote... An "also-ran" compared to his true masterpieces. Even Walt Disney had his off-films though, so it's nothing to be ashamed about.