How about just one word: Delightful.

What a library this man has produced! My Neighbor Totoro. Castle in the Sky. Kiki’s Delivery Service. Princess Mononoke. Spirited Away. If I had children, each one of these titles would be in the family video library.

Well, here’s a confession: It’s just us grownups living at Overstreet Headquarters, but we have all of these titles in the family video library anyway.

The more films by Hayao Miyazake I see, the more I realize how much he repeats himself. There are so many elements of the new film, Howl’s Moving Castle, that remind me of other Miyazake films: the enchanted boy who can fly, the girl who must wander a wonderland until she finds a way to break the spell, the oversized teardrops, the big ugly wicked witches…

But you know, I don’t care. There are so many NEW wonders in each film, so many surprises and unexpected laughs, it just makes me feel like a kid again.

Sophie may look like an old woman. But this is a Miyazake movie. Nothing is what it seems.

There are so many wonderful sights and characters in this film, I hardly know where to start. My full review will be posted on the movie page this weekend, but it’ll be hard to narrow it down to a review you can read without canceling your plans for the rest of the day.

While it’s not as ambitious or as satisfying as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is probably the funniest of the Miyazake films that have reached America’s big screens. The crowd at the screening loved it, the kids were attentive and laughing all the way through… even talking back to the screen in a way that tells you the movie is working. And these are good laughs, healthy laughs; I almost forgot what it felt like to have so much good clean laughter in a theatre.

It has its problems. The story becomes extremely convoluted, so that plot twists and revelations begin to feel rather arbitrary. I pretty much gave up trying to figure out what it all meant. And the concluding scenes become a bit ridiculous as all of the loose ends are tied off too conveniently.

But I love the characters–the Scarecrow, the hilarious dog, Calcifer the fire demon, the majestic (and somewhat fey) hero named Howl, and the extraordinary sight of the castle itself. There are moments of breathtaking beauty and awe-inspiring destruction as well. Some of the war scenes are really unsettling, even though we only see the cities being firebombed from a distance.

Once again, Disney’s done an excellent job dubbing what must have been a very difficult film to translate. I was worried when Billy Crystal showed up as the fire demon, but he restrains himself far better than he did in Monster’s Inc. and actually creates a very unique character. Emily Mortimer, Christian Bale, and Lauren Bacall all do fine work as well. (This is going to be Bale’s biggest year ever, isn’t it?)

The more that Miyazake’s storytelling mastery rubs off on Disney’s animators and screenwriters, the better. One moment that will really stick with me was just incidental… a shot of our heroine, Sophie, walking down a busy street. She passes a homeless man sitting with his back to the activity. I waited for him to become a character, or to reveal himself as an enemy spy, or something like that. No, he was just a homeless man. I sat and thought, have I ever seen that in an animated film before? What American family movie bothers to show us the reality of a homeless man on the sidewalk without stopping to moralize about it?

Details like that make Miyazake’s world more engaging. They’re as honest as they are outrageous and imaginative.

This weekend, you could see a much-hyped Oscar contender, or a bunch of films ranging from so-so to mind-blowingly bad. Do something different. Go see something extraordinary.

More here.

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