Howl's Moving Castle
The latest from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli
Friday, June 17, 2005
by Alex Stroup, MousePlanet editor
If someone were to sneak you into a theater blindfolded
so you wouldn't know what you were about to see, it would be apparent
within moments that the feature was a Hayao Miyazaki movie. The movie
literally begins with Howl's moving castle. We don't know why it is moving,
or where it is going, but you can't help but be mesmerized by its very
In this age of computer modeling and pseudo-reality only being limited
by processor speed, it is a thing of beauty to watch this building shudder
as it ambles along, each piece moving individually from the others, creating
a reality that can't possibly exist but makes perfect sense in doing do.
Knowing that human hands illustrated and created this just adds to the
© 2004 Nibariki. GNDDT. All rights reserved.
If you've tried recent Miyazaki films (Princess Mononoke and Spirited
Away most notably) and found they weren't for you, then you'll likely
have the same opinion of Howl's Moving Castle. The story sticks
to the core of Miyazaki's oeuvre: A world in which the mechanical corporeal
world exists side by side with an amorphous magical world out of reach
for many; a story where a young, self-assured heroine plays the central
role; and a place where airships of fantastic designs move above the landscape.
As did Spirited Away before it, Howl's Moving Castle set
box office records in Japan before moving out into the wider world. For
the American audience, this one should be much more accessible than Spirited
Away, which was steeped in Japanese mythology and folklore. Based
on Diana Wynne Jones's book of the same name, Howl's Moving Castle
is set in a fantasy world that is reminiscent of a European country
at the start of World War Iexcept for the fact that castles walk
the countryside and demons aren't all that uncommon an occurrence.
Sophie (Emily Mortimer) is a teenager stuck working as a milliner in
a hat store owned by her mother. Looking forward to a lifetime of this,
she is simultaneously bored by and accepting of her solitude while her
younger sisters get to have a life outside the store. At least she is,
until a brief encounter with a young wizard puts her on edge and she offends
a witch (the wonderfully named Witch of the Waste, voiced by a particularly
husky Lauren Bacall), who then casts a spell upon Sophie, aging her half
a century, at least.
Unable to let her family see her in this condition, Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) heads out to the countryside, where various creatures of magic live, hoping to find someone to break the spell. When Sophie's first encounter is with a scarecrow, you may think you're in for a Wizard of Oz remake, but fortunately that is where the similarity ends.
She soon finds herself sneaking into the moving castle, unaware that
it is home of the wizard Howl, a wizard reputed to eat pretty young girls'
souls. It further turns out that Howl is the charming wizard she met earlier,
leading to her aged condition. At this point the story turns and is no
longer about Sophie trying to break her curse, but rather of her befriending
Howl, his apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and the fire demon Calcifer
(Billy Crystal) who provides the energy to keep the castle moving.
Howl, you see, has problemsand Sophie is just the invigorating
force to help him over the hump. The land in which they all live is at
war with a neighboring country over a missing prince and all the wizards,
including Howl, have been summoned to help with the fighting. It is in
scenes related to this that Miyazaki's pacifist message comes through,
and the analogy in which the land's wizards (Europe's scientists in WWI)
become permanently corrupted by warfare is powerful, if possibly unwelcome
in this time of our own war.
The way in which Howl and Sophie confront this call to action, along with the personal stories that intertwine to break various spells comprises most of the movie and could be considered confusing. Miyazaki does not cater to the younger audience members. There are long scenes of dialogue and pauses where graceful movement can be appreciated. Along with that mindset comes a willingness to leave things unexplained, the thought that perhaps every question doesn't need to be answered. This is a wonderful thing, but if you lose the thread it will lead to confusion or misunderstanding.
© 2004 Nibariki. GNDDT. All rights reserved.
One of the stipulations from Studio Ghibli in giving Walt Disney Pictures
American distribution rights is that other than dubbing, no other changes
can be made to the movie. This is a particularly good thing in this case,
as at 119 minutes, Howl's Moving Castle is probably 30 minutes
longer than Disney thinks an animated movie should be. It is a shame that
Disney feels compelled to dub the movie rather than using the Japanese
vocals with subtitles; it makes sense though, since the hope for this
movie will be to attract families with young children. Pixar's John Lasseter
and his team again let the dubbing effort so it is by no means a slapdash
job, and is never a distraction.
Admirably, they chose to stay away from A-list actors for the voice work.
Billy Crystal is the biggest name on the bill and though he tries to tone
down his familiar inflections, he is almost a distraction. Calcifer is
such a wonderfully animated character, though (especially considering
that he is just a flame), that you'll quickly fall into a groove. At first
Christian Bale, as Howl, seems to be giving a performance so bland that
for a moment I thought it was Keanu Reeves, but the very subdued, almost
monotone, style really seemed to fit the character as the movie went on.
The rest of the voices are impressive talents but not so familiar that
you spend half the movie trying to guess a voice.
I expect that many people will feel that Howl's Moving Castle
meanders too much, flitting from subject A to topic B and back again without
sufficient reason. For me, though, that was its charm, creating in me
a feeling completely in synch with a world where a girl can be walking
down the street one moment and walking above the building in the arms
of a wizard the next.
Miyazaki remains the greatest imaginative force in feature animation
anywhere in the world, and I can only hope that this time American audiences
finally catch on.
Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.
Howl's Moving Castle is a Walt Disney Picture release of a Studio Ghibli production.
Wide theatrical release: Friday, June 17
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki.
Starring: Christian Bale, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Billy Crystal.
Rated PG for frightening images and brief mild language.
Running time: 119 minutes
Alex's Rating: 9 out of 10
Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted information junkie, Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.
Click here to contact Alex.