Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle is a film that feels and looks straight out of a dream. The kind of dream we do not wish to abandon, and we certainly won’t forget because its essence is too fascinating. Suffused with imagination and charm, Hayao Miyazaki‘s film breathes life into the story created by Diana Wynne Jones rather than attempting to produce a precise replica. If we endeavor to select movies like this Academy Award-nominated feature, we need to look for other worlds where normal everyday rules do not apply. Even if that “other world” is our own but defamiliarized to the point where it becomes strange, fresh, and unique. Where the real and the magical collide and blend together harmoniously, with a whimsical aesthetic, simplicity at its core, but themes grounded so in reality that they can whisper bittersweet truths, move our hearts, and perhaps bring one or two tears to our eyes.
This recent Netflix original animated feature was brought to us by Wit Studio, the studio behind popular anime series like the first three seasons of Attack on Titan, Vinland Sagaand more recently, Spy x Family. An undeniable visual treat, this Tokyo-set dystopian version of Hans Christian Andersen‘s tragic fairy tale The Little Mermaid even includes some intertextuality to hammer the parallelisms home. While it may be argued that the story leans too heavily on the classic fairy tale, sprinkling some recognizable anime tropes in between, bubble shares Howl’s Moving Castle heartwarming purity at the core of its relationships, bringing its own unique dreamlike setting to life that is navigated by the characters with wonderfully fluid choreography.
If you are searching for a lighthearted and heartfelt fantasy romance story look no further than Matthew Vaughn‘s stardust. Based on an original story by prolific English author Neil Gaiman, stardust nails the classic fairy tale structure, audaciously sweeping you along in the ride without a single boring moment. It is a movie that takes the viewer by the hand and takes them to see a “whole new world” beyond the wall. Although one may say that it does not encapsulate rich thought-provoking themes like Howl’s Moving Castleit’s a movie that knows how to be fun, without being afraid of being silly, in fact, wholly embracing its silliness at times. Featuring a stellar cast that includes Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mark Strongand Robert de Niro as a pirate, among others, stardust‘s feel-good essence is sure to bring a smile to one’s face.
Spirited Away (2001)
In all fairness, most of Miyazki’s filmography could’ve made the list but Howl’s Moving Castle immediate precedent seems to be the most appropriate. If one is well-versed in Miyazaki’s filmography, or knowledgeable of the extensive animation world, chances are Spirited Away is far from being foreign to you. It’s a film that broke records, being the highest-grossed Japanese film for nearly two decades until the release of Demon Slayer: Mugen Train in 2020. If perchance you have been living under a rock or in a parallel spiritual realm and haven’t seen this classic, it is probably your best pick if you want to replicate the feeling of watching Howl’s Moving Castle as closely as possible. Although the themes differ slightly, both films share a preoccupation with the daunting experience of growing older which can resonate deeply with anyone.
Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (2018)
Mari Okada‘s directorial debut is yet another emotional exploration of mortality and the process of aging. The medieval-style fantasy nature of the movie feels very subtle in a realistic way. The characters and their relationships require little to no suspension of disbelief because they have a genuine “human quality” that Miyazaki’s films also share. Unlike some other entries on this list, it does not center around a romantic pair, instead exploring the essence of love through the prism of motherhood. With gorgeously smooth animation and an incredible voice cast, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms dares the audience to be sentimental, and to allow themselves to feel the bittersweet link that can form between love and loss, or rather, letting go of that which one holds so dear because it is as time demands.
In labyrintha young girl named Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must solve a magical labyrinth in thirteen hours in other to save her baby brother. In the process, she learns many things – not to take things for granted, for instance – and meets some interesting and peculiar characters. This classic fantasy movie directed by Jim Henson and with a screenplay written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones is full of twists and turns and surprises. Invigorated by creativity and dynamism, the movie is like a combination of Alice in Wonderland meets Wizard of Oz meets The Muppets but wherein the setting is a seemingly endless labyrinth. In addition, labyrinth interweaves into its narrative some cultural and well-known artistic elements like the illusory drawings of MC Escherand of course, some iconic musical moments by the legendary David Bowie.
To the Forest of Firefly Lights (2011)
Directed by Takahiro moriwho has his directorial hand on some celebrated anime series like Baccano! as well as both seasons of Durarara!!, is a short film that will not fail to tickle your heartstrings. Short, simple, and sweet with a sprinkle of poetic sadness, To the Forest of Firefly Lights is based on a one-shot manga of the same name by Yuki Midorikawa. Even though 40-minutes feels enough to tell the story, one finishes this movie wishing it would go on for longer. The bond that forms between a gentle spirit, Gin (Koki Uchiyama), and a young girl, Hotaru (Ayane Sakura), at the heart of the story can be compared to Howl’s (Takuya Kimura) and Sophie’s (Chieko Baishô) pure-hearted relationship that we loved to see unravel on the screen.
Big Fish (2003)
This one is a personal pick. If you haven’t seen it, get some tissues, grab yourself some popcorn, sit in front of a – preferably large – screen, and then feel free to come back.
On top of being an unabashed personal choice for its life-altering quality, it is also the endlessly imaginative magical feel to the real-life set of Tim Burton‘s 2003 feature that puts it on this list. If there is a director with an imagination that rivals Miyazaki’s, it’s Burton. Based on a 1998 novel by Daniel Wallacethe relationship present in Big Fish is between a father with a storyteller’s heart and his skeptical son. As Will (Billy Crudup) does his best to discern the fictional from the factual, we are taken on an unforgettable journey through his dying father’s, Edward’s (Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney), bizarre and fascinating life.
Your Name (2016)
Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has been dubbed by some critics as Miyazaki’s successor. Although Your Name lacks that surreal spice that is so uniquely Miyazaki’s, it has its own particular sweetness that does not need to find a comparison. Visually delightful to say the least, the film is set in modern-day Japan but where dreams can be just as real as reality, the past as important as the present and as important as the future. The love story between Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishic) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) transcends the barriers of sleep and even those imposed by time. Making use of a niche trope without falling into clichés, Your Name deals masterfully with the feeling of longing, of missing someone, somewhere, something, you’ve never actually met all the while perfectly balancing the real and the fantastical to create something out of this world.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Set in 1944 Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth is the fantasy movie on this list that best shares Howl’s Moving Castle‘s anti war undertones. Unlike some other entries, this is not a film suitable for everyone in the family, especially impressionable young children. Although it follows a child’s perspective, Ofelia’s (Ivana Baquero), it still illustrates violence without pulling any punches, which is not done gratuitously but with a purpose. Even if one does not personally enjoy Guillermo del Toro‘s work there is no denying the depth of his magical worlds and how homogeneously they blend with reality, bringing out the best, and oftentimes the darkest, in both the real and unreal. Enter Pan’s Labyrinth if you dare, you’ll likely never forget this 2-hour-long adventure.