Howl’s Moving Castle
(Hauru no ugoku shiro [Japanese title])
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
[review of the English-dubbed version]
Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle is such a stunning work of art – in the visual sense – that I recommend it without reservation on that basis alone – and it has many other merits. The story meanders and many characters and plot points may seem vague – which I didn’t mind but I’m sure that some people will. To me, those ambiguities fit in nicely with the overall feel of wonder and mystery present in every scene. The imagination demonstrated on the screen is so far beyond any film (other that Miyazaki’s 2002 classic, Academy Award winning Spirited Away) that it boggles my mind that all other filmmakers could be so far behind in an area as central to film as the images we see when we look up to the screen. Every scene, every frame should be appreciated as a lovingly constructed painting – a work of art in the highest sense.
The story centers around a ordinary young woman, Sophie, who’s working in the family’s hat shop when she encounters some trouble – first from rude soldiers then from strange evil spirits in the form of black blob-like humanoids. She is saved by a charming young man who turns out to be the wizard Howl (voiced by Christian Bale), who roams the countryside in a magic castle he created that walks on four legs, powered by a fire demon named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal). Sophie falls in love with Howl, which makes the Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall) very jealous so she puts a curse on Sophie, making her appear to be a very old woman. It’s an interesting curse since, depending of Sophie’s feelings about Howl and herself at any given moment, she can appear young, middle-aged or elderly… and can sound young (Emily Mortimer did the young voice) or old (Jean Simmons, the old voice). That’s just one of many clever devices Miyazaki employs to develop this magical world of Howl, Sophie, and Calcifer.
Since Sophie doesn’t want her family to see her in her elderly form, she walks out into the Waste (actually an attractive countryside… but it’s supposed to be undesirable to be away from the town) and meets a scarecrow – himself under a curse -- who takes her to Howl’s Castle where she becomes, first a cleaning lady, then a member of the household. And what a household… at the time, I didn’t know who was voicing the fire demon but when I found out it was Billy Crystal, I thought of his great work in Monsters Inc – he is one amazing voice artist. In both cases he helped create highly provocative, funny and loveable characters. Howl’s was originally made in Japanese, so I’m very curious to see the original version with subtitles – I heard that both versions are being released in the US. It’s hard to believe, however, that anyone could top Billy Crystal’s voice work. I liked all of the voice work in the dubbed version, but he was truly great.
Howl’s Moving Castle is based on a novel by the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, an English writer of children’s books who is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity following the surge in interest in J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. The look of the film suggests early 20th century Europe – beautifully stylized -- but the characters are drawn in anime style – large eyes, etc. So it’s a blend of British and Japanese style, visually – not to mention that the British story has been adapted into Miyazaki’s amazingly imaginative fantasy world. So there is an “East meets West and gets dubbed back into English” aspect to the film, but it is flawlessly executed – nothing seems out of place.
Other than Sophie, all of the characters are somewhat ambiguous morally – likeable and sympathetic but imperfect. This is unusual for movies aimed at children – which Howl’s is really not – I think it should appeal to all ages but there is a stigma attached to all animated movies – that they’re just for kids. The characters’ moral complexity may make the movie more difficult to discuss after seeing it with your kids, but that complexity is among the elements that elevate Howl’s to the ranks of truly great movies. Howl, for example, has a reputation as a womanizer who collects hearts of beautiful young women – he also proved to be afraid to confront the King – to whom he swore allegiance but does not wish to help with the war. The war is the backdrop to the main story, a complex web of love, jealousy, and deceit.
The war is an almost constant fixture in the background but is left largely unexplained. The characters complain frequently about the “stupid war”, but – beyond a brief remark about the disappearance of a prince -- it’s never revealed who is fighting or what the issues are. I interpreted the war theme as showing how innocent people – even powerful ones like the wizard Howl – can have their lives thrown into turmoil by a war that they don’t understand and have no control over. I can’t recall one line in the entire film that revealed that any of the characters were anything but baffled by the war. That’s an anti-war theme of sorts but it’s different from showing how the war is unjustified or immoral. Since none of the characters seem to understand what’s going on, how can they judge the war in an overall sense? Interestingly, the sorceress Suliman (voiced by Blythe Danner) -- who’s loyal to the King and is trying to draw Howl into service in the war -- isn’t portrayed as a thoroughly evil character – she has redeeming qualities.
One of the strengths of Howl’s Moving Castle -- to me, at least and others will differ on this point – is that the filmmakers didn’t feel compelled to explain – via dialog or whatever -- every plot point and every character’s motivation. The viewer just takes all in like a fly on the wall and, maybe some things are left unclear, but the effect is an overall tingle at having taken a trip into a beautiful fantasy world. Most movies lay on lots of expository dialog so that they can be sure that the audience knows what’s going on. In this case, I prefer the way they kept things somewhat vague.
The film doesn’t follow the three-act structure common to almost all American films, regardless of genre. For that reason, it can seem unfocused and rambling. There is a touching story, but it involves several conflicts, rather than one in the case of the classic three-act play, some of which aren’t clearly resolved.
Howl’s Moving Castle was created almost entirely with traditional, hand-drawn animation. It’s interesting that such an amazingly well-done film appears at a time when computer-generated animation is taking over -- traditional animation is viewed as obsolete. I’m not saying that computer animation isn’t a superior tool – I believe, all else being equal, that it is. But all is not equal in the case of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli (they produced the film, Disney is the U.S. distributor) -- the incredible talent of the team of artists – both in terms of imagination and execution – outweighs their reluctance to adopt the modern computer as a tool.
This complex and possibly bewildering love story is full of cleverly designed and beautifully drawn landscapes, characters and even war machines that make the droids of Star Wars seem ordinary. Not only is Howl’s one of the most beautiful movies you can ever hope to see, but the story of Sophie’s love is compelling even though it can be a little confusing at times. A film this powerful and rich in the visual sense must be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated, but most fans will want to own the DVD as well.
Images are copyright Walt Disney Pictures.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.