Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
An amazing film, beautiful and thought provoking. Although it is certainly adapted by the novel (of same name) by Diana Wynne Johnson, the film departs from the source material to examine the harsh effects of war on the central characters and the world they live in.
The central plot revolves around a girl, Sophie, who falls under a witch's curse to become a 90-year-old woman. I could go on and on about how she comes to interact with the Wizard Howl and have a positive effect on the people around her as she struggles to overcome her own curse, but I won't. It's much more fun to watch it unfold than to be told about it. One thing about Miyazaki, he loves to tell a good story. It is not by accident that John Lasseter and Brad Bird (Pixar geniuses of storycrafting) have raved about Miyazaki in general and this film in particular. Well, okay, it's more than coincidence; the English dubbing was directed by Pete Docter (also of the Pixar genius clan). But directing the English voices is not nearly the same as directing the movie itself, and Miyazaki does a superior job.
The warfare in this story is not glorified, like some kind of Richard Donner movie or G.I. Joe cartoon. It is made very clear that war and violence disrupt the peace and beauty of everyday life, and it may scare younger children. The war storyline can easily be construed as a judgement of the current wars in the Middle East, but it holds true for any war that is fought close to someone's home. Remember the lesson of Tolkein, and look for applicability to many aspects of our lives, not allegory to one particular situation.
The animation is, quite simply, superb. Perhaps the people's faces are typical of anime, but the scenery is outstanding and the transformations astounded me. I wish I had a Hi-Def TV just for this movie.
Be aware, parents, that there is very slight, brief nudity. The central character is even trying to look away, so it's not like some gratuitous derriere footage. Honestly, if you think a quick side view of a cartoon butt is an issue, then you really need to see a therapist. Your kids look at their own butts in the full length mirror, people, whether you know it or not. Get over it.
If I must address a perceived flaw, it is that the ending seems too neat. However, it should be noted that the book itself has an absurdly neat ending, in which myriad storylines are all wrapped up in so concise a manner that I found myself checking to make sure I hadn't accidentally skipped some pages. So get over it, critics.
Rent this movie. You'll love it.