‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ Review

Howl's Moving Castle - Image courtesy of Buena Vista InternationalJapan. 119 minutes.
Released by Buena Vista International
Screened at Landmark Magnolia, Dallas, TX
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
With the voices of Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, Lauren Bacall

Certain critics have suggested how ironic it is that director Hayao Miyazaki is finally receiving great acclaim in the United States — because they feel his artistry is on the decline.

The line is, ‘Oh, if you think PRINCESS MONONOKE or SPIRITED AWAY or HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE are good’ — his three latest pictures which have been released in the US by a Disney distribution arm — ‘you should have seen PORCO ROSSO or MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO or LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY or NAUSICAA or…’

It reminds me of my teenage years, when I would spend all my available money on the latest import 45’s (vinyl singles, the equivalent of MP3s for you kids out there) from obscure British punk bunds. It was great music, but the ancillary pleasure was being ahead of the curve, of knowing something before everyone else did, of seeing U2 at a small club, of growing tired of bands by the time their first — naturally inferior — album appeared on a major label. The important thing was the music, but those other benefits constituted a nice bonus, a welcome reward for the effort involved in spending money on the British music papers and on music that might suck (yeah, long before the Internet).

Perhaps if I’d been hip to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli back in the 1980s, if I’d seen everything they’d ever produced, I’d also feel it a bit sad that the plaudits are coming at the wrong time, that US critics and audiences should have started shouting from the rooftops years ago for this maestro of the moving drawing.

I might even feel a sense of loss.

As it is, though, I came late to the party. A cinema viewing of SPIRITED AWAY was my first Miyazaki experience, and I was caught up immediately in the magic. I subsequently watched KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE and NAUSICAA, but still have much more to watch before I can comment on the director’s career arc — and, at the tender age of 64, I hope his career is long from over.

Still. There’s HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE.

Howl's Moving Castle - Image courtesy of Buena Vista InternationalYoung Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) works quite happily in her mother’s hat shop in a small town. When an older woman (voiced by Lauren Bacall) enters the shop at closing time and disparages the hats, Sophie chases her out. Only then does the woman reveal herself as the wicked Witch of the Wastes; in retaliation for Sophie’s rebuff, the Witch transforms Sophie into an old woman and prevents her from ever revealing the curse she is under.

Quickly resigned to her fate, Sophie promptly leaves town. Out in the surrounding desolate hills, a hopping, mute scarecrow befriends her, and convinces her that a warm bed for the night may be found in the fantastical castle belonging to the wizard Howl (voiced by Christian Bale). Howl is a mysterious and fear-inspiring figure in Sophie’s town, but the lady is desperate.

The castle itself is a huge, bedraggled contraption made up of a variety of building materials. It moves continually, if a bit unsteadily, on two long spindly metal legs. Once inside, Sophie befriends a fire demon named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal) and makes herself at home as the castle’s new maid. Over time, she learns what Howl is up to — hint: there’s a war going on — falls in love, and resolves to help Howl. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to break the magical spells that hold both her and Calcifer captive.

Howl's Moving Castle - Image courtesy of Buena Vista InternationalThe film is based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones (Miyazaki is credited with the screenplay), which I haven’t read, but some of the plot and story points are unclear. To cite just two: How could such a young woman so quickly accept her transformation into an old hag? Why would she insist upon leaving the protection of the castle at a crucial moment?

But that’s nit-picking. The characters are developed sufficiently — they act differently than each other, and don’t always do what you would expect — the story and themes are absorbing, and at one point late in the film the narrative footing is yanked away and we are transported into another place entirely through sound and imagery.

I think they call that magic…

…especially when it’s integrated into the story. It all makes sense in hindsight when you piece it back together, and that may be Miyazaki’s greatest gift of all, a true expression of magical realism.

Commenting on the quality of the animation seems superflous. It’s like beautiful cinematography — either you appreciate it or you don’t — and it’s easy to take for granted. But this is a gorgeous film that proves the continued viability of traditional 2-D animation as an art form — even if the Hollywood studios have abandoned it due to perceived commercial concerns.

Dubbing Note: Though I always prefer to the see the original-language version of a film, only the English-dubbed version was playing in town. The dubbing is handled well and the voice acting is very good; still, I intend to seek out the Japanese original.

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