Review: Magic Found in "Howl's Moving Castle" Blu-ray
I haven’t revisited Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle since it was released on DVD in 2006. I had vague memories of dissatisfaction with the movie and distinctly recall thinking that a lot of stuff in the back third only made sense if you had read the novel by Diana Wynne Jones (even though Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of the screenplay took significant liberties with that portion of the story). However, it’s been long enough since then that watching the new US Blu-ray re-release of the film was essentially a new experience, so it was a pleasant surprise to find my dissatisfaction has dissipated over the years. Howl’s Moving Castle is a fascinatingly odd movie, often seeming to share the title location’s rattletrap, haphazard-seeming construction, but ultimately proving to have a potent magical spirit that makes for an exceptionally satisfying viewing experience.
Howl’s Moving Castle is set in an idyllic quasi-European country at war with one of its neighbors. Beyond the civilized lands lie the Wastes, home to mysterious and feared wizards and witches. The quiet and plain Sophie works at her parents’ hat shop, until a chance meeting with the wizard Howl pulls her into a swirl of much larger events. Howl rescues Sophie first from a pair of unpleasant soldiers and then from a pack of mysterious and vaguely menacing goop men, leaving her oddly exhilarated as he vanishes. Unfortunately, her next encounter with a magician doesn’t go nearly as well, as she is visited by the haughty and grotesquely obese Witch of the Wastes, seeking Howl’s whereabouts. When the spirited Sophie refuses to comply with the Witch’s demands, the Witch places a curse on Sophie that transforms her into an old woman, unable to speak of the curse and unaware of how to break it. Oddly, the curse turns out to be the source of Sophie’s liberation, as she finally ventures out of the sheltered world she knows to brave the Wastes alone, seeking a way to break the spell. This journey quickly brings her into contact with an array of bizarre characters, starting with a seemingly sentient scarecrow with a turnip for a head and going on to the ramshackle title locale and its residents: a fire demon named Calcifer, Howl’s young apprentice Markl, and Howl himself. Sophie manages to talk her way into becoming the castle’s cleaning lady, getting more and more drawn into Howl’s strange world and the war raging throughout the countryside and threatening to consume the lands.
For those familiar with Miyazaki-san’s work, it should come as no surprise that Howl’s Moving Castle is a visually sumptuous feast for the eyes, especially in the absolutely stunning high-definition presentation it receives on this new Blu-ray. “Beautiful” just seems like a grossly inadequate word to describe it. Its first scenes of the Castle steaming and shambling its way through a foggy countryside is enough to take your breath away, and its combination of the familiar with the bizarre immediately creates a powerful sense of place that we may recognize but is still entirely outside our experience. Hayao Miyazaki is also probably one of the only directors capable of successfully translating Diana Wynne Jones’ offbeat sensibilities and quirky pacing, since I recall that the movie stays almost completely faithful to the novel all the way to the back third. Like the castle itself, it looks bolted together from dozens of dissimilar elements just one misstep away from falling apart entirely, and fortunately that misstep never comes (no matter what my earlier thoughts on the movie were). The film of Howl’s Moving Castle successfully translates the meandering narrative to film through Miyazaki-san’s cinematic dream-logic sensibilities, so the flights of fancy and plot twists out of left field have a method to their madness that we can only vaguely sense. Howl’s Moving Castle can easily fit next to the best of Hayao Miyazaki’s collected works in its dream-logic sensibilities, and I’m struck again (as I always am when I watch one of his films) how each of them can have dream logic distinct and separate from the others.
I’m also struck by some of Toonzone’s earlier reviews of the movie that gripe about the muddled anti-war message of the film. Once upon a time, I might have shared those views, but on these recent viewings, I find myself much more forgiving of those plot elements because the war is ultimately little more than backdrop, not the major plot engine that drives movies like Nausïcaa or Princess Mononoke. Howl’s Moving Castle clearly finds some appeal in the pomp and circumstance of the military, and seems to take significant pleasures from the biomorphic shapes of the battleships and airships that fight in it. It also has a quiet way to mark the tragedy when those craft limp their way back to port or are blown out of the sky, with the corresponding loss of life. It is similarly quiet in its indictment of the indiscriminate destruction wreaked on the countryside. It’s most serious condemnations (even if they’re never voiced) are probably reserved for the king (depicted in his one scene as a flamboyant fool treating war as a game with no care for its consequences), and for the court witch Suliman (whose cool reserve enables the king’s idiotic expeditions when her magical and political power could easily end the conflict). However, the war may be an instrument of Sophie and Howl’s development, but it’s not the only one or even the most important one. Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t an anti-war film as much as it’s a film about personal growth and self-realization that happens to be set during wartime. It’s also to the film’s credit that it manages to take such trite and commonplace story tropes and weave them into something distinctive enough to feel new again.
That voyage of personal discovery is expressed in the spirited Sophie and the moody Howl, and the way each of them pulls in the other. Sophie is another in a long line of strong, well-defined female leads in Miyazaki-san’s films, made even more unusual by her age. This is a film that would never get past the pitch stage in Hollywood, so Miyazaki-san’s faithfulness to Wynne Jones’ original text in defiance of conventional wisdom is to be commended. It’s also fascinating to see how the medium of animation can so effectively capture the changes and shifts in Sophie’s curse, which seems to weaken depending on how her emotions flare throughout the film. Sophie has to show a range from a hunched-over, brittle crone to something essentially like her younger self with white hair, and sometimes shifts subtly from one to the other in the same scene. These sudden shifts would be challenging to do with makeup effects or CGI in a live-action movie, but they’re child’s play for animation and its innate flexibility of form. That flexibility also serves the various magical transformations well, as with both the grotesque Witch of the Wastes to Howl’s assorted disguises and alternate forms.
The Blu-ray of Howl’s Moving Castle is essentially a high-definition port of the original 2-disc DVD release from 7 years ago. The 1080p video is absolutely stunning, making this a disc to break out to impress your friends and neighbors with. It is mated to DTS-HD master audio soundtracks in English and Japanese (and a 5.1 Dolby Digital French track), with the English dub supervised by Pixar’s Pete Docter. While I normally prefer anime in the original Japanese, the dub track of Howl’s Moving Castle is first-rate, with enough ample joys to essentially create a new experience. It is a delight to hear Emily Mortimer’s young Sophie blended so seamlessly with Jean Simmons’ older Sophie (and even more impressive to consider that Sophie’s Japanese actor Chieko Baishô did both roles). The Witch of the Wastes is also a role that Lauren Bacall was born to play, since it’s such a treat to listen to her haughty tone, and much the same can be said for Blythe Danner as Madame Suliman (though the Japanese performances of Akihiro Miwa and Haruko Kato, respectively, both seem to be the Japanese equivalents of Bacall and Danner, and are equally delightful to listen to even if you don’t speak Japanese). I’m a little less enamored of Christian Bale’s Howl, which is an excellent performance on its own, but where Bale’s gruff delivery seems out of place coming from Howl’s effiminate appearance. His voice just seems out of place, especially in comparison to the more appropriate performance by Takuya Kimura. I’m also oddly conflicted over Billy Crystal’s Calcifer, finding him tremendously charismatic while also feeling like he’s mugging a bit too much. On the other hand, I also find Tatsuya Gashûin’s Calcifer a bit too whiny and small.
All the original DVD’s bonus features have been ported over to the new Blu-ray: an interesting “Behind the Microphone” featurette focusing on the English dub; an interview with Pete Docter done for Japanese TV (most interesting for his acknowledgement that the effeminate Howl is a character type more acceptable to Japanese audiences than American ones, and how his dub was an attempt to shift his perception to American audiences); a film showing Hayao Miyazaki’s surprise visit to Pixar when Howl’s Moving Castle premiered in America, finished with an interview with John Lasseter in his toy-filled office; a brace of original Japanese TV spots and trailers; and the film’s complete storyboards, mated to the soundtrack of your choice. The value of the storyboards as a bonus feature is clearer after reading Starting Point and recognizing the importance those boards have in the development of the film, but the extra storage capacity of Blu-ray means the storyboard version of the film can live on the same disc as the movie. The Blu-ray combo pack also includes a DVD of the movie, which is literally the same disc as the original 2006 release (down to the trailers for the 2-disc DVD edition of The Little Mermaid and the theatrical trailer for the first Cars). It is an excellent disc containing all the bonuses other than the storyboard version of the film, and only looks inadequate in comparison to the stunning Blu-ray.
It’s a common joke that Blu-ray is just a way for movie studios to get you to buy the same stuff over again (which, admittedly, is working, as my multiple copies of Blade Runner, Seven Samurai, Casablanca, and Toy Story will attest). However, the upgrade in visual quality for Howl’s Moving Castle makes that upgrade price much easier to swallow. The fact that I enjoyed the movie so much more is an unexpected but pleasant bonus. Howl’s Moving Castle still doesn’t quite reach the high-water marks of movies like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, or Porco Rosso in my rankings of Studio Ghibli’s output, but after this revisiting I find it doesn’t fall short by much.