We just re-watched Miyazaki's great animation, Howl's Moving Castle (2004), and I was surprised to find that I hadn't blogged it the first time we watched. Can't understand how I missed it. It certainly made a big enough impression.
It is based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote stories about schools for wizards long before Harry Potter came along. Her concepts of magic can be satirical (The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) or deeply philosophical (and maybe still satirical), and her writing is funny, interesting and human. In other words, we are fans.
It is the story of little Sofi (voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer), who works in a hat shop in an old-fashioned Europeanish town. She is cursed by the Witch of the Waste, who turns her into an old woman (old Sofi voiced by Jean Simmons). Wandering the Waste, she takes refuge in Lord Howl's moving castle - a steampunk heap that walks on robot chicken feet, ruled by the dark wizard Howl.
Howl (Christian Bale) turns out to be a very pretty youth (or bishonen, as they say in anime) with some dark secrets. His household includes a slightly feral child and a powerful and somewhat silly fire demon (voice by Billy Crystal. There's also a little dog and a scarecrow, for a little touch of Oz.
Sofi is a very Miyazaki little girl, also very Wynne-Jonesian. She is timid and plain, but dutiful and resourceful. She likes to be useful, assigning herself the job of cleaning lady to the castle. She can be assertive, and manages to bully the fire demon who no one else could control. She doesn't like being old, but takes it rather well - I think she was a bit of a premature old lady even before the curse. I also think she's adorable.
The little pieces of magic, like the kid's dwarf disguise are the best. In my opinion, the big magical set pieces, like Howl's transformation in the midst of steampunk aerial warfare, are less effective. All in all, maybe my favorite Studio Ghibli production.