One huge exception to this is Hayao Miyazaki. Hayao Miyazaki is the producer/director of My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and others. Recently, and for the second time, I watched Howl's Moving Castle. I was struck, once again, by how gorgeous the setting is. Yeah, the story is creative; the characterizations and theme are intelligent; the action is rollicking and fun. But oh my, oh my, the settings just blow your mind.
Howl's Moving Castle is based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones; for people who get upset about this sort of thing, DWJ was Rowlings long before Rowlings was Rowlings. She wrote young-magicians-dealing-with-life stuff starting back, I believe, in the 80's. (If you can ever get a hold of Tony Robinson [from Blackadder] reading Charmed Life, get it and keep it! Or get it and sell it to me!). For a closer look at Rowlings & Jones, check out my brother Eugene's blog post Chrestomanci vs Harry Potter.
In any case, the book Howl's Moving Castle and the movie are not exactly alike. Miyazaki used a large number of Jones' ideas and some of her overall plot structures; however, he also excised several plot lines and added an overarcing problem (a war). However, I don't see Miyazaki's changes as either in line with Jones' vision or out of sync with Jones' vision (this is usually my criteria for judging movies made from books). Rather, the book and the movie complement each other--almost like two different visions of the same place. It's quite effective to watch the movie and then read the book. Or vice versa. It doesn't ruin the experience of either. (As is so often the case.)
And one reason for this lack of comparison is that while you are watching the movie, you are being fed Miyazaki's stunning visions. His image of Howl's castle is effective, but the thing that blows you away is the countryside through which the castle trundles. You are given not only lake and mountain scenes, but lake and mountain scenes at their most quinessential. They draw forth an emotional reaction, a catch at the heart. Miyazaki also gives you (in this movie and others) these great quasi-European, quasi-fantasy towns with cobblestones and trains and trolleys and flying boats. Marvelous stuff.
When I was little, before I stopped believing in magic (and I did believe in it, in a rather practical way--that is, I didn't believe it was impossible), I thought how neat it would be to transport myself into certain pictures, illustrations. I even half believed it would be possible if I cared enough to try. And then I got all old and 10+ years and realized that one had to take cars and spend money to do stuff like that. But Miyazaki comes pretty close to instilling that magical sense of "Yes, I could exist there. I could go there, in reality, any time."
It's amazing to think that animation can do this, but Miyazaki does. As well as scenery, the movie Howl's Moving Castle is great in other respects--one of these is the choice of Jean Simmons for the voice of Sophie. Sophie is a young girl who is enchanted, or thinks she's been enchanted, into an old woman. Jean Simmons plays the older Sophie (Emily Mortimer plays the younger Sophie). It is marvelous casting since Jean Simmons' voice, despite her age, has the lightness, the freshness of a young girl.
Christian Bale plays Howl (by the way, this is the English dub, sponsored by Walt Disney but really brought about by the head of Pixar). For a skinny, English dude, Bale has the loveliest baritone. And Billy Crystal plays the voice of Calcifar. He is very funny, right on the mark, without the movie becoming, as it so often does with Robin Williams, the Billy Crystal show.
Moreover, the movie proves what I've suspected for several years now--Keats and Byron aside, the most romantic people in the world are the Japanese.
Recommendation: It will probably end up on my wish-list for Christmas; you should at least rent it!