(2004)4Cammila CollarHayao Miyazaki's reputation as the creator of the most enchanting and inspiring animated films of the past 20 years is only strengthened with the fresh and complex fairy tale Howl's Moving Castle. Those looking for the beauty and magic of a Disney yarn but thirsting for more underlying meaning could convert based on this movie alone, while hardcore Miyazaki fans should find that this installment falls perfectly in line with the filmmaker's prolific and much-loved filmography. While the narrative is charming and accessible, much like Kiki's Delivery Service, it also remains true to an epic and purposeful subtext in a style that calls to mind Princess Mononoke. Both a coming-of-age tale and an essay on the human price of war, each character in Howl's Moving Castle -- especially Sofi, Miyazaki's trademark strong female protagonist -- is confronted with questions about self-image. Like many of us, Sofi struggles to discern whether her true self is defined through her own actions or through her relationships with others. The way Miyazaki employs this theme is particularly clever in that, rather than seeking to answer the question, he focuses his energy on illustrating how universal the issue is, as nearly every peripheral character in the story also wrestles with the same impasse in a different way. For instance, title character Howl, who is a charming and aloof conjurer, grapples with a curse that changes his physical form, warping his perception of what he is in the most literal terms. Even the villainess in this fairy tale eventually proves that the most wicked of deeds seldom reflect the actual wickedness of people. By the end of Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki has spun a delightful fable into an expressive examination of identity, and what it means for all of us as the struggle to grow up continues through old age. It's a theme that speaks to young and old alike, proving once again that there is still room for meaning in the world of charming, animated fantasy.