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"Howl’s Moving Castle" Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing New

by on April 29, 2005

Howl’s Moving Castle is an anomaly. It’s a film that is at once beautiful, artistic, and stunning and yet also pandering, silly and naïve. Parts of it are as inspired and surreal as Spirited Away, others are jarringly dull. Sometimes the plot flows forward as engagingly as Mononoke, at other times it grows stilted, simplistic, and saccharine. One thing is certain, however: Hayao Miyazaki can do better than this.

Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, takes us to a vaguely nineteenth-century-European country ruled by a king with a taste for war but no idea of its consequences and a sorceress named Sariman. Outside the cities, in The Waste, rogue sorcerers and demons reign over the emptiness. Howl is one of these sorcerers. Legend has it he moves across The Waste in his mysterious moving castle, a bizarre fortress with legs and a mouth, looking for beautiful young girls whose hearts he can devour.

Sophie, a homely young hatter, has a chance meeting with Howl when he rescues her from two military ruffians. Howl must then rescue them both from Goop Men, black moving blobs that chase them into the air. Sophie is at once taken with Howl, who, far from looking a monster, is in fact a handsome blond-haired young man. The Goop Men’s mistress, The Witch of the Waste, is hungrily seeking Howl’s heart, and later that night she visits Sophie, jealously turning her into an old woman. Unhappy and alone, Sophie leaves town for The Waste, where she meets a scarecrow with a turnip for a head. Turnip brings her a cane, and when she playfully asks for shelter Turnip returns with Howl’s moving castle.

Sophie passes herself off as a cleaning lady, traveling with the castle and its three occupants, Howl; Markl, a little boy; and Calcifer, a fire demon bound by a contract with Howl that neither of them are very happy about. Howl sells potions to townsfolk under various disguises, and at night he turns into a bird and flies off through the castle’s magic door into a mysterious blackness.

As the war grows worse, Sariman summons Howl to the palace. Out of cowardice, Howl sends Sophie in his place, and on the way she meets the Witch of the Waste. When the two women, one arthritic and one disturbingly fat, finally arrive at the top of the castle steps after an amusing low-speed race, Sophie gains an audience with Sariman, while the Witch of the Waste is sent to be melted (!) in a room with four giant light bulbs. The light melts away her powers and her smooth skin, revealing her for what she is: a woman even older than Sophie’s elderly form.

Sariman explains that, like the Witch, Howl has made a pact with a demon that will eat away at him as long as he uses his magic to selfish ends. Howl, who had been watching in disguise, appears and only escapes from Sariman by a hair himself. As Sophie falls deeper and deeper in love with Howl, she discovers more of his dark side, and as Howl must spend more and more time fighting his inner demons, that darkness spreads. Sophie takes it upon herself to save Howl and Calcifer from the darkness, and in the process she saves herself as well.

Visually, most of the film is what a Studio Ghibli production should be: beautiful, creative, subtle, and engaging. The castle’s design is very appealing and not what I would have expected, and Turnip, Calcifer and Heen (the dog) fill the film’s quota for cutely offbeat (and merchandisable!) characters. Every background is lovingly detailed and pure joy to watch, and the dream sequences can only be described as stunning. The night scenes in particular feature perhaps the grittiest look Miyazaki has ever achieved.

Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack is stirring and appropriate, and the Japanese voice acting is top-notch. Japanese heartthrob Takuya Kimura puts in a very good performance as Howl, and Chieko Baisho, of the massive Japanese Tora-san franchise, is a believable and varied Sophie. Baisho’s performance highlights one of my favorite things about animation. Only in an animated film could a sixty-three year old woman get behind the face of a much younger character and carry off the performance seamlessly.

Despite all these advantages Howl‘s plot falls flat. Although the first half of the film is engaging and well-paced, the second half wanders about rather aimlessly trying to find a good place to end. Unfortunately it never does, and though the climax is exciting, the resolution as a whole is clichéd, saccharine, and rushed. The solution to the war story thread is particularly shoddy and inexcusably naïve, especially considering this is the same director that gave us Princess Mononoke.

Though I have not read the book, I would not be surprised if the war subplot Miyazaki makes a central theme of his film does not actually appear in it at all. Miyazaki supposedly refused to come to the Academy Awards two years ago out of protest of the war in Iraq, and this view reflecting itself in his work is no surprise. However, the war elements do not integrate at all into the film, instead coming off as heavy-handed, inconsistent and distracting. Plot holes abound: there is no sense in Sariman, ostensibly a wise and upstanding character, recruiting wizards for the king to use in his war plans, and even less sense in her accusing Howl of using his magic “selfishly” when he refuses to help.

While it is true that Miyazaki’s past villains have made sacrifices for a noble cause, Sariman doesn’t appear to have a noble cause. She appears to have no reason at all to allow this war to continue, robbing her of her moral authority and separating her from other, more believable antagonists like Mononoke‘s Lady Eboshi or the Pejite soldiers in Nausicaa. The emphasis on the war plot, far from adding to the film’s impact, instead confuses and derails it.

It’s not that Howl’s Moving Castle is a bad film. Taken separately its parts are actually very good, it’s just that the film never quite integrates them into a coherent whole. Ghibli has yet again produced beautiful and imaginative images accompanied by first-rate acting and music, but in this case the narrative got away from them. The film tries to say so many things that it ends up spreading its resources too thin to say anything effectively. Howl’s Moving Castle is still worth seeing for its art alone, but as a film it is unfortunately flawed.

This is a review of an early subtitled print of the film. The final subtitled version may differ. Howl’s Moving Castle arrives in U.S. theaters on June 10.

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