So, yeah, I saw Howl's Moving Castle. And I really enjoyed it. It's not as good as Spirited Away, I thought, but still definitely worth watching. The great animation and beautiful visuals you'd expect from a Miyazaki production. Unfortunately, the story isn't all that cohesive.
The movie is about a girl named Sophie who works in a hat shop in a sort of pastoral yet industrialized (there are trains and, as always with Miyazaki, flying machines) European neverland. There is a war brewing between the kingdom where she lives and a neighboring one, as the neighboring kingdom's prince has gone missing and blame is being thrown around. An encounter with a handsome young man with magical powers leads to a chase by creepy black amoeboid monsters sent by "the Witch of the Wastes". That night, Sophie encounters the Witch herself, who curses her, turning her into an old woman and preventing her from telling anyone about it. The next day, Sophie leaves town and walks into the wastes to look for magical help. She finds a turnip-headed and animate (but mute) scarecrow, and sneaks into the walking mechanical castle of the infamous wizard Howl, who is said to "eat the hearts of beautiful girls". Inside, she finds a little fire-spirit named Calcifer (voice of Billy Crystal, who fortunately does not ham it up more than necessary) who powers the castle. She also meets Howl's boy apprentice, Markl, who she convinces to let her stay as a cleaning lady. Howl—the young man from before—returns, and detects that she is cursed, but allows her to stay.
Howl at first seems unflappable, but he turns out to be somewhat childish and self-centered. At one point, he accidentally swallows a potion that changes his hair color because Sophie rearranged his potions, and throws a magical temper tantrum because he's now "ugly", oozing gallons of green slime all over the place. Typical for Miyazaki, there are no real villains (even the Witch of the Waste isn't all bad, just selfish); the real "enemies" are more abstract.
<SPOILERS (highlight to read)>You'd think the main story arc would be about returning Sophie to her proper age, but that kind of takes care of itself. The curse is reminiscent of Marco's in Porco Rosso, which fades when he behaves heroically rather than as a "pig". The actual climax of the film is the solution to something we didn't even know was a problem until well into the movie, and the ending doesn't really explain how some things are apparently fixed, leaving some loose threads even as one thread that had been in the background for a while is suddenly tied up from out of nowhere.</SPOILERS>
Four stars. Joe Bob says check it out.
The trailers I saw were a mixed bag. My mom cringed throughout the preview for Pride and Prejudice (starring Kiera "Lips" Knightly), which seems to have entirely missed the point of the book. Valiant seems like Chicken Run minus the wit, and Chicken Little is going for the Madagascar "throw pop references at the screen until something sticks" brand of desperate humor: the trailer even ends with an agonizing ripoff of Napoleon Dynamite's dance, which goes on way too long before Chicken Little is squished by a bit of falling sky. Those two together highlight that Disney learned exactly the wrong lessons from Pixar's success: instead of "people will go to see well-written animated movies with heart", all they got was "computer generated = moneyz". On the other hand, Sky High (which sounded lame on paper) actually looks like it could be a lot of fun, sort of a flip side to The Incredibles (it's live action, but the difference seems more a matter of degree than of kind). And March of the Penguins, a nature documentary, looks good too (it helps that baby penguins are adorable).
Just today I saw Isao Takahata's My Neighbors the Yamadas today with my mom, part of the Pacific Film Archive's Art of Studio Ghibli series. I'd seen it before (on the small screen) but she hadn't. We were laughing like mad. Think a Japanese equivalent of The Simpsons, but with the Ghibli charm: a modern, dysfunctional family ("Yamada" is the Japanese equivalent of "Jones") muddling through life despite themselves. It's based on a popular comic strip, and is done in a very simple style, but is very visually inventive: a bobsled run turns into a wedding cake, the family on a boat during a storm (a visual metaphor for life's challenges) references Hokusai's famous Great Wave at Kanagawa woodblock print, and an encounter with a motorcycle gang is suddenly rendered in a realistic style to highlight the seriousness and danger. It's episodic, but not aimless; it builds to a satisfying conclusion. The segments are punctuated by famous haiku, sometimes ironically and sometimes with real relevance. It doesn't really require much knowledge of Japanese culture to enjoy (everyone can get the bit where the family is arguing, and young daughter Nonoko starts crying—Mrs. Yamada: "See, not in front of the children!" Nonoko: "*sob* I can't hear the TV!"), but it references Japanese culture (both contemporary and traditional) enough that there's no way it'd get a wide release in America. See it if you get the chance.