"Howl's Moving Castle": Home is Where You Park it
Hayao Miyazaki set the bar perilously high for himself with 2002’s Spirited Away, winning an Academy Award and setting a Japanese box office record. The much anticipated Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t quite measure up, but engineers a rousing fantasy adventure in the classic Miyazaki mold.
Howl was written by novelist Diana Wynne Jones, though you’d hardly know it as the film combines the epic fantasy aspects of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke with the female voyages of self-discovery from other Studio Ghibli projects like Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart. I would have enjoyed more of the former, since an interesting conflict is presented only to be used as fodder for Miyazaki’s typically awkward proselytizing. Meanwhile the coming of age thread is so beset by bizarre outbursts of magic that it becomes tricky to relate to, not to mention confusing for younger viewers. Still it is perhaps because Miyazaki is so unfettered by the familiar conventions of family cinema that his works are so enchanting. Howl is certainly charming if somewhat meandrous.
In a picturesque land reminiscent of WWI era central Europe, young, solitary Sophie (Formula 51‘s Emily Mortimer) toils away tirelessly in the hat shop she inherited from her father. One day in town a handsome young man (pop super group SMAP’s Takuya Kimura/Batman Begins‘ Christian Bale) comes to Sophie’s aid, and together they flee from the Witch of the Waste’s (Lauren Bacall) agents pursuing him. The charismatic stranger intrigues Sophie, but her sister Lettie is concerned it might have been the legendary Howl, who roams the countryside in his giant lumbering castle reportedly devouring women’s hearts. That night Sophie is paid a visit by the obese, loathsome Witch, who out of spite casts a spell transforming her into a decrepit old woman (Spartacus‘ Jean Simmons).
At a loss, Sophie sets off into the wilderness in search of Howl’s castle, and eventually stumbling upon it she busies herself cleaning its dilapidated interior. She quickly befriends its oddball residents: endearing young apprentice Markl (Zathura‘s Josh Hutcherson), grudgingly cooperative fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal), and mute sentient scarecrow Turnip. She gradually makes a connection with Howl, who is busy surveying the brutal war that has engulfed the land and pressed many fellow magicians into service. Madame Suliman, Howl’s former teacher and powerful royal magician for one of the competing kingdoms, demands that Howl lend his strength to the war effort, but he refuses and takes flight with his motley crew.
If Howl‘s story feels a little loosely conceived, the characters are as distinctive as ever. Sophie is an inspiration to AARP members everywhere, shaking off the cobwebs of old age with raw industriousness. As her heart slowly awakens to her true feelings for Howl, we watch a curious game of cosmetic ping-pong unfold on her face when moments of passion temporarily return her youth.
Sophie plays the maternal Wendy to Howl’s carefree and impulsive Peter Pan, not only doing the chores he can’t be bothered with but generally steering him toward a more responsible course of action. His is the one character that changes significantly in the excellent dub. Bale’s Howl is oddly gruff and subdued for Howl’s flamboyant appearance and mannerisms, while Kimura is debonair and slightly effete.
The Witch presents a strong argument against conspicuous consumption with her grotesquely oversized frame and gaudily opulent wardrobe. It’s implied Howl broke her heart long in the past, but strangely they don’t even talk when they meet again.
Calcifer, resembling one of Pacman’s nemeses, might be the typical Disney comic relief character were he not rather creepy and covetous of people’s organs. Sharing a magical bond with Howl, it is he who powers the massive mobile edifice, though he humorously grumbles about his burden every step of the way.
Despite the backdrop of war, there are but a few exhilarating action scenes in Howl. In one, Howl and Sophie escape their pursuers by sailing above the rooftops Crouching Tiger style. In another all too brief moment a winged Howl scraps with a squadron of flying beasts high above a ferociously burning city.
Having previously championed the environment in films like Mononoke, this time Miyazaki rails against the foolishness and futility of war. Unfortunately he offers nothing more than the obvious “war is bad,” not bothering to give background for the film’s conflict. More pointedly he establishes that despite noble intentions overuse of Howl’s magic threatens to turn him permanently into a monster, possibly alluding to the reliance on force as a foreign policy tool in current events
Although CGI heavy for a Ghibli production, Howl is predictably attractive. The castle itself is a CGI beast, part WWI battleship and part chicken, somewhat diminishing its organic charm. However the way in which the castle’s door serves as a portal to various locations is a unique visual conceit. One moment the characters are in a deadly war zone, and the next a peaceful meadow. Amongst the characters the Witch’s creepy shape-shifting henchmen stand out, faceless and relentless they ooze their way inexorably toward their prey like a wave of demonic molasses.
The modest special features begin with “Behind the Microphone,” which shows Bale amazingly forced to stand around waiting for lines while the screenwriters frantically try to adapt the Japanese dialogue. There’s an educational discussion on how snippets of vocal tracks can be digitally spliced together and timed exactly with the animation.
Next there’s a Japanese interview with English dub director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc), who discusses how they had to butch up the metrosexual Howl for Western audiences. There follows a very awkward, bilingual brownnosing session in Pixar’s noisy lobby between Pixar head John Lassiter and Miyazaki, who apparently doesn’t rate a conference room.
Finally we get the usual Japanese trailers and storyboard version of the film, which are probably only of interest to diehard fans. Again the absence of a commentary and a concept art gallery is most disappointing.
Howl’s Moving Castle is another reliably entertaining and pretty Miyazaki film, but, as the Academy recently indicated, not quite one of his classic works. I’m sure fans will eat it up all the same. The burning question in my mind is how Disney might incorporate the castle into Disneyworld. I’m thinking the monorail should start cleaning out its locker.