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Howl's Moving Castle (2005)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 10 June 2005

Even Jove nods, they say. The great Hayao Miyazaki of “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away” is a little off his game with “Howl’s Moving Castle.” It’s still extremely intelligent, beautifully styled, full of fascinating details and has the now-traditional spunky Miyazaki heroine. But it isn’t as amazing and engrossing as most of his earlier films; it stretches its somewhat thin story over a too-long running time. It’s just not as gripping as the best of his earlier films, not as filled with astonishing invention.

But it’s still very good, very much worth seeing, and utterly unlike American animated movies, CGI or hand-drawn. When it was released in Japan last year, it soon became the third biggest grossing movie in Japanese cinema history, topped only by “Titanic” and Miyazaki’s own “Spirited Away.”

The slight drop in quality may be because the movie was not originally intended to be directed by Miyazaki. Mamoru Hosoda began work on the film as director for Ghibli Studios, but abruptly departed the project; Miyazaki stepped in. It’s the first Miyazaki movie based on a Western work, the novel of the same title by Diana Wynne Jones.

Although the story overall is a bit more routine than we expect from Miyazaki, he still offers inventive ideas, demonstrating all over again that he simply does not think like any other filmmaker, either in animation or live action. The story is set in a mythical kingdom of amusingly quaint villages, vast rolling green fields, and rocky, snow-capped peaks. The costuming suggests the early twentieth century; there are steam-powered streetcars, but also unusual flying machines, some very large.

Young Sophie (Emily Mortimer) runs her flibbertigibbet mother’s hat shop; the other workers enjoy their efforts, but Sophie, convinced she’s plain and friendless, is bored with her commonplace life. But war and rumors of war are spreading, and soldiers are beginning to be common in the streets of Sophie’s town. A couple of them make somewhat rude (if playful) advances, and she’s rescued by a beautiful young man (Christian Bale). To her surprise, he can walk on air, and delivers her safely home.

Striding around the nearby hills is the moving castle of the title—an amusing, clumsy-looking contraption with lots of moving parts, smokestacks, porches, back doors and something like a face. It walks on four big chicken feet. Howl is known to be an amazing wizard—there are lots of wizards and witches about—and everyone is in awe of the unseen magician.

Sophie has a surprising encounter with the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), a huge dowager in elaborate dress and with vast, cascading chins and jowls. To Sophie’s surprise, the Witch turns her into an old lady (Jean Simmons) and departs as mysteriously as she came, served by amorphous black slaves, like walking tar babies.

In the hands of other directors, the transformation of Sophie into an old granny lady would be treated as a tragedy—but here it’s a challenge to Sophie. She wasn’t having a lot of fun as a young girl, but becoming suddenly old changes her life in more ways than the obvious. She’s ready for whatever confronts her—although she does want to revert to her true age.

So she sets out for Howl’s moving castle, helped along the way by a silent, turnip-headed scarecrow who bounces around on his pole like on a pogo stick. (Ever see pogo sticks any more?) He helps her into the castle, which is walking about nearby; she encounters a little boy, Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and sees that the interior of the castle is grubby, cobwebby and thick with dust. She also makes friends with Calcifer the fire demon (Billy Crystal), who lives in Howl’s fireplace and operates the moving castle.

And when Howl returns, she sees what she already suspected: he’s the beautiful young man she encountered in the village. He’s charming but also somewhat arrogant and vain. His back door can open into different villages; in each, he has a different identity, and sells spells and charms to locals. He’s reputed to have devoured the hearts of young women all across the land, but he has no friends other than Markl and Calcifer. He doesn’t know how to deal with Sophie.

But she knows how to deal with the castle. She busily cleans the place up, sweeping out garbage, washing the dishes, and in general making it livable again. Markl and Calcifer soon like Sophie, but the emotionally distant Howl remains somewhat aloof. At one point he plunges into a morass of self pity (his hair turns gray)—“I see no point in living if I can’t be beautiful”—and takes to turning into a bird with a human head, flying about to watch the people below prepare for war. (Mostly over a vanished prince.) The warring countries each order Howl (under his various names) to work for them, as other sorcerers and wizards are doing, but he stays remote.

The travels of the moving castle and its occupants—they’re followed everywhere by the helpful bouncing scarecrow—eventually involve them with the Witch of the Waste again, who turns out to be more sympathetic and more of a victim than anyone thought at first (though she never really turns nice) and with the scheming Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner), the head sorcereress of Kingsbury, one of the warring countries. A small but remarkably heavy dog, Heen, who wheezes rather than barks, joins Sophie and her traveling companions. Tender feelings are growing in Howl and Sophie—but can she become young again? (She occasionally briefly reverts, sometimes partially, to her true age, but often doesn’t even notice.)

The movie is rendered in Miyazaki’s broad palette of pastel colors which are somehow both intense and understated. The design by Miyazaki’s vast team is similarly almost contradictory, simple and yet ornate at times—Howl’s trophy-laden rooms in the castle almost redefine “ornate.” The score by Joe Hisaishi is sweeping and glamorous, as full of wonder as the movie itself.

The strongest element of the movie, however, is the character of Sophie. Her first sight of herself as an old lady shocks her, but there’s little she can do—the spell prevents her from telling anyone of her plight—and so immediately begins to make the best of things. She’s tough, imaginative and direct, never taking any guff from little boys, fire demons, wicked witches or sorcerers, and yet also never becoming obstreperous or annoying. She’s a fully-rounded character, very appealing—and long-time movie veteran Jean Simmons provides a winning, funny and rich voice. So does Bacall as the Witch of the Waste—and we thought we knew everything these women could do.

There’s no one else in movie history like Miyazaki; his style is vividly distinctive, and is expressed in the design, the animation and his choice of characters. A great deal of the initial American positive reception to Japanese “anime” was really for Hayao Miyazaki and his work. He’s a treasure. Even if “Howl’s Moving Castle” is a notch or two down from Miyazaki’s best work, it’s still a beautiful, funny and imaginative movie. Disney made the right choice in teaming up with Miyazaki and making so many of his films available to Americans.







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