Howl's Moving Castle Movie Review

Similar to Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle is a sumptuously illustrated fairy tale with a pro-environment and anti-war slant, though unlike those modern classics, the animé titan's latest suffers from a narrative confusion that bogs down its initially effervescent spirit. A gloriously animated fantasia blessed by familiar Miyazaki hallmarks - vibrant, ethereal artwork, whimsical creatures, a rural world in which mysticism and technology happily coexist - the film (being released in both subtitled and dubbed versions, the latter of which I saw) has a light aura of juvenile romanticism and a manic, tangible physicality that stands head and shoulders above anything previously crafted by the maestros at Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli (including Katsuhiro Otomo's recent Steamboy).

The story of a young girl who, after being changed into an elderly woman by an evil witch, joins forces with a petulant playboy wizard against a nefarious sorcerer, Howl's is akin to a cluttered, cacophonous childhood dream come to life. However, as with dreams, Miyazaki's film is also far-too-often a bewildering jumble of intriguing ideas and ingenious images that never fully coalesce into a moving or compelling whole.

Sophie (Emily Mortimer in the dubbed version) is a hat-maker working in her mother's shop when, on a casual mid-day stroll about town, she's whisked into the air by a dashing man who, it later turns out, is the enigmatic Howl (Christian Bale), a reclusive wizard who roams the countryside in an ambulatory castle (courtesy of its mechanized chicken legs) that's powered by a fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal). After Sophie is turned into an old lady (Jean Simmons) by the jealous Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) - who covets Howl's heart - she journeys to Howl's castle, where she becomes the new maid and matronly figure, caring not only for the dapper sorcerer and Calcifer but also Howl's young apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson), a pogo-sticking scarecrow dubbed Turniphead, and the now-infirm Witch of the Waste.

That Sophie's physical conversion into a senior citizen also results in mental maturation (as she now suddenly possesses the wisdom and patience of a grandmother) makes next to no sense. But illogicality is part and parcel of Miyazaki's storytelling (loosely based on Diana Wynne Jones' novel), which soon takes off into ever-more-elaborate flights of fancy that - whether it be Howl's ability to take the shape of a winged creature or the nebulous war being orchestrated by Howl's former mentor, the sorcerer Madam Suliman (Blythe Danner) - are inventive and enthralling in spite of their general lack of coherence.

Such bountiful creativity seeps from every pore of Howl's Moving Castle, whether it's the titular mansion's outward appearance - a hulking, pulsating blend of iron gaskets and gears that looks like a fish-toad hybrid - or its front door, which magically opens onto different, varied landscapes including a fog-shrouded mountain and a sunny shipping port. Amidst this lavish visual splendor, the film's themes about family, ecology and the pointless folly of national conflicts turn into mere afterthoughts, and because so little time is spent on the young Sophie before her transformation, one never gets a clear sense of her character's motivations.

Still, despite his plot's eventual devolution into perplexing chaos, the filmmaker's attention to detail (such as Calcifer climbing on top of, and around, the logs that fuel his flames) and humanistic affection for his protagonists nonetheless shows in every vividly sculpted frame. And anyway, given the current, uneven state of domestic Hollywood animation, even a lesser Miyazaki effort is superior to 99 percent of its American contemporaries.

Aka Hauru no ugoku shiro.

That's no castle.


Howl's Moving Castle Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG, 2004


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