Spirited Away (2001) by Hayao Miyazaki

The film begins with a young girl, Chihiro, moving house with her parents. Just before arriving at their new home, they come across a mysterious forest track, and at the end of the track, a wall with a passageway leading on into the darkness. Chihiro, at first wary, is forced to follow her parents through into what turns out to be an abandoned theme park. Things soon take an dark and unusual turn when her parents, gorging themselves on food lay out on an unattended stall, turn into pigs. What follows is a magical and spectacular adventure, full of dragons, witches, strange creatures and unforgettable characters, such as ‘No-Face’ and various nature spirits.

The film is a great ride from start to finish, following an odd dream logic that keeps your attention as it moves from one unusual character or scenario to the next. In spite of the dreamlike and fantastical nature of this other world, it is made to feel entirely real. The animation is fantastic, with every scene showing incredible attention to detail – from moss and flowers growing in the crevices of stones, to all the many signs on the spirit world streets. The scenes inside the bath-house are a particular delight, with so many characters bustling around, you are sure to want to watch again to make sure you haven’t missed any little expression or moment. The score by Joe Hisaishi is similarly brilliant, capturing the mood of the film perfectly, not an easy task as it drifts from whimsy to melancholy, from action-packed to thoughtful reflection. The story is constantly twisting and turning, and the unexpected nature of this world means that there are constantly new surprises.

At heart a coming-of-age story as Chihiro, who is moving house in her real life, is forced to cope with a strange new world, full of bizarre and often dangerous experiences. Woven through this is a message of environmentalism, with the spirits representing a natural world that is slowly being destroyed, or at least ‘stressed’ by modernity. Without over-emphasising the point it offers a poignant reminder of the importance of protecting our world. A fantastic film with incredible animation and a great message.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) by Hayao Miyazaki

From the opening scenes of a giant walking castle, it is clear that this film is going to be a magical experience. We are introduced to Sophie, a young girl making hats in her mother’s hat-shop. When the Witch of the Waste puts a curse on her, turning her into an old lady, she finds herself swept up into an often unexpected, but always thrilling world of wizards and spells. Sophie sets off to find Howl, whose improbably constructed castle can be seen wandering the landscape, in order to remove the curse, learning about life and love along the way.

The film is full of inventive moments, with the magic element giving the film a truly unexpected quality. Abundant spells mean that anything could happen, and often does. Sophie is a likeable character, with some funny moments and a plight that makes the audience care for her. One of the things the film does well is create a believable world. The artwork and animation is a wonder to behold with all the minute details on the walking castle and street scenes keeping your eyes busy trying to look at everything. The depiction of landscapes, mountains and lakes, do a perfect job in creating a sense of amazement at the natural world, and the action sequences are similarly engaging. The story takes place in a world at war, with a strong anti-war message. The way the film puts across this message is unusual in largely ignoring the war, showing it to be pointless and stupid, and instead focussing on the magic of the countryside and the enjoyment of peace. Instead we see battle-cruisers heading for war, or planes overhead, and the beautiful landscape surrounding offers a counterpoint to this, almost asking the audience to choose between the ugly mechanisation of war, or the rural idyll that the main characters spend most of their time exploring. The times when the war is depicted, it is a dark, dangerous place. The plot can be mysterious at times, but this further adds to the sense of this being a real place with complex characters all of whom have a past, and hopes and dreams. The music is fantastic, with an uplifting score that compliments the gorgeous visuals.

A highly enjoyable film, with creative use of magic and an style that makes every moment a pleasure. As well as a central love story, the film features several themes, including an anti-war message and ideas of aging and maturity. The transformation of Sophie into an old lady, and other transformations further emphasises the themes of growth and change. I would definitely recommend this film as it is packed with so many memorable moments, an engaging plot, likeable characters, and an incredible visual style.