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Alex Stroup, editor

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 movement.

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 magic.


© 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 I—except 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 problems—and 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.


MOVIE DETAILS

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

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