|Howl's Moving Castle|
|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 07 March 2006|
The 2004 Studio Ghibli animated film "Howl's Moving Castle," adapted by the novel of the same name from British fantasist Diana Wynne Jones, may be director/screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki's greatest film in terms of scope and complexity. Unfortunately, it also seems to be one of his most misunderstood by Western audiences.
"Howl" is the story of Sophie, a plain, timid and withdrawn girl who works in a hat shop and hides from life until she is swept off her feet by a roguish and vain wizard called Howl. When Sophie gets caught in the crossfire between Howl and the wicked Witch of the Waste, she is cursed and aged overnight to 90 years old. Installing herself in Howl's amazing traveling castle that roams the countryside on metal chicken feet, belching clouds of steam and smoke, Sophie is intent on breaking the curse. However, once inside the magic traveling castle, Sophie quickly gets caught up in the lives of Howl, his apprentice Markl and fire demon servant Calcifer, as Howl uses his magic to try and keep the peace in a mysterious war which is ripping the Otherworld apart, and threatening to spill over into Sophie's world.
The world Miyazaki creates in "Howl" is most reminiscent of the alternate early 20th century of "Kiki's Delivery Service," which presented a charming Europe which appeared never to have been ravaged by the first World War. Sophie's world is quaint and charming steam-punk turn of the century where magic (and wizards) are commonplace, but the veneer of genteel society hides the ugly side of humanity where war and violence breed. The magic door in Howl's castle leads to more than just different worlds, but it also shows the different sides of Howl himself -- the vain and selfish playboy, the romantic and vulnerable hero, and the man who would give up his life to end a devastating battle. As Sophie continually morphs between her younger and older selves, her relationship with Howl becomes the film's emotional center. And while the film sets up the Witch of the Waste as an Oz-like villain in black and white, nothing is quite as it seems by the end.
Visually, the disc is up to the same high quality that you expect from Disney, with a beautiful transfer that suffers only slightly from edge enhancement. However, you'd have to really be looking for it, as overall the transfer is excellent. The film's soft pastel color palette is vibrant and the sheer amount of detail in the background paintings and CGI renderings of the eponymous castle comes through beautifully. That said, "Howl" is still a film best seen in theatres, particularly the spectacular aerial chase scene.
The sound effects and Jo Hisaishi's score makes excellent use of the 5.1 surround features, although the dialogue (both Japanese and English) remains predominantly centered. However, dialogue is clear and easy to understand all the way through, even when the music swells during the battle sequences. The sound mix does work beautifully to create the aural illusion of Howl's lumbering mechanical castle moving across the frame. The disc offers subtitles for the hearing impaired (including descriptions of the sound effects and direct translations of the English-language subbing script) as well as "true" English subtitles.
The English-language cast does an excellent job, both in matching the original Japanese voice actors’ performances, as well as matching the lip-flaps, giving "Howl" a tighter and more seamless dub than most of the previous Disney adaptations. Stand-outs include Lauren Bacall as the bloated and sinister Witch of the Waste and Blythe Danner as Suliman. However, diehard fans will still most likely prefer the original Japanese cast, particularly given Christine Bale's vocal performance as Howl, which can seem stilted and one-note at times, compared to Kimura Takuya's vibrant and playful performance in the original. One area where the film's English language dub is actually superior is in the casting of Jean Simmons as "Old" Sophie, and Emily Mortimer (“Bright Young Things”) as “Young” Sophie. In the instances where Sophie morphs back and forth between her cursed and regular selves, the voice direction helps support the visuals in a way that Baisho Chieko (who voiced Sophie all the way through the film) couldn't quite accomplish.
Disney offers the usual scant extras on this two-disc set, with one disc containing nothing but the storyboards of the film timed with the music and your choice of language (English dub or original Japanese). While viewing Miyazaki's drawings is interesting, so far as seeing how they translate from boards to finished product, it seems to be a waste of space to devote an entire disc to such scant material. However, in contrast, the "Behind the Microphone" featurette is chock full of fascinating content, rather than the usual packaged celebrity voice cast interviews. The featurette instead concentrates on the challenges of adapting Japanese-language animated films to mainstream audiences. Of particular interest are how the scripts must be rewritten on the fly during recording sessions and heavily manipulated in post-production to retain the meaning and performances while still matching lip-flaps. In previous releases, these technical aspects of adaptation have been glossed over, but in the case of "Howl," we are actually shown the behind-the-scenes footage of how the directors work with the actors and the finished recordings to try and create the perfect take and a seamless performance. The cast interviews are delightful, including the legendary Bacall and Simmons. However, while there is B-roll footage of Christian Bale, he is noticeable absent from the interview segments.
Also included on the disc are two features from the Japanese release. The first is a long interview with Pixar director Pete Docter, who oversaw the adaptation. For reasons that perhaps no one can understand, the interview is presented without translation of the questions, which appear on screen in Japanese over shots of the “Howl” art book, presumably because the interview was originally conducted entirely in English. Luckily, Docter is articulate, and his answers in most instances incorporate the original questions. His insights into both the film and the challenges of adaptation, such as how to present Howl (who is a classic anime "bishonen" or "pretty-boy" archetype, to Western audiences) are interesting and insightful. The second feature documents Miyazaki's visit to Pixar Studios and presenting Pixar Chairman John Lasseter with a giant touchable head-and-paws Cat Bus (from "My Neighbour Totoro") to be hung on the lobby wall. While at times difficult to hear (the segment was shot on video, and provides no subtitles, instead relying on the translator whose voice is often indistinct or muffled), the segment is enjoyable mainly to witness Lasseter's genuine love and affection for Miyazaki, whom he clearly holds in the highest regard.
If "Howl's Moving Castle" truly is Miyazaki's last film prior to retirement, he will have gone out at the top of his game.