Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Movie fans everywhere rejoiced to hear that Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki was putting off retirement one more time to personally oversee the animation of the latest Studio Ghibli film, Howl's Moving Castle, based on the novel of the same name by noted British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones.
From the opening scene, the audience can have no doubt they are watching the work of one of the most brilliantly creative minds in the world today, as the indescribably wondrous moving castle shambles across the screen, cobbled together out of all manner of odd architectural elements, replete with smoking stacks, whirring gears, and spinning flywheels, and propelled by four robotic chicken legs as if Baba Yaga's house met the Industrial Revolution. To top it all off, the castle's various garrets, portholes, and cupolas bear a remarkable resemblance to a face, which shifts and shudders to reflect the mood of the characters. The moving castle is the film's most jawdroppingly imaginative creation, and indeed is surely one of the most wonderful contraptions ever to be projected upon a movie screen. Unfortunately, however, the rest of the movie has some trouble matching up.
As is usual for Miyazaki, the movie follows the story of a young heroine in a world almost like our own but suffused with subtle but pervasive strains of naturalistic, almost elemental magic. In this case, the twist is that young Sophie is drawn away from her ordinary life working in a hatter's shop by a witch's curse that turns her into a 90-year-old woman. Her quest to reverse the curse leads her to the wandering castle and its quirky inhabitants - the fire demon named "Calcifer" that powers it, the apparently friendly but mute animated scarecrow that follows it around, the boy apprentice Markyl who lives there, and of course, the castle's master, the dashing young wizard Howl, who has mighty powers but is troubled by personal demons.
The plot is complicated by trouble brewing on all sides. As the roving castle wanders through the mountains, two neighboring nations are jingoistically preparing for war with marching soldiers, cheering crowds, and mighty battleships drawn in the style of World War I imagery but which Miyazaki openly admits was inspired by the present-day Iraq War. Meanwhile, Howl is being chased by the maleficent and corpulent Witch of the Wastes and is being hounded by the governments of the two warring nations, who will stop at nothing to secure his magical services for their causes, even if they have to use force.
As always, Miyazaki's plot and pacing are idiosyncratic and unconventional. He clearly feels completely unconstrained by the storytelling conventions that less creative filmmakers fall back upon. The foremost example is Miyazaki's decision to tell a story about a heroine who acts and behaves like a 90-year-old for most of the film, and indeed, some of the film's most moving moments are the silent visual meditations on just how it feels to be really, really old, a condition for which Miyazaki shows a remarkable sensitivity and understanding. As the tale unfolds, Miyazaki crafts a delectable puzzle box of interlocking mysteries and loose ends, that gradually build tension and suspense that keep the viewers leaning forward for the next revelation.
But perhaps the puzzle box is too well crafted, because it is rather disappointing when all the loose ends are suddenly wrapped up into a tidy, simple solution over the course of about five minutes at the end of the film, in a break from Miyazaki's usual fondness for deeply ambiguous endings. While the story is always interesting, and has its share of memorable moments and meditations on social issues and the human condition, it never approaches the depth of some of Miyazaki's past masterpieces, such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Nausicaa. Moreover, while the movie delivers the expected feast of stunning visuals, other than the amazingly original moving castle, much of the other imagery will seem familiar to Miyazaki fans, especially the airships which seem to pop up in every other movie he makes.
Howl's Moving Castle is certainly not Miyazaki's best film. Nevertheless, it is truly a tribute to his genius and the magnificence of his previous work that a film this good could be considered a disappointment. Compared to virtually any other animated feature by someone not named Hayao Miyazaki, it is breathtakingly beautiful film with a refreshingly original story and more emotional depth than five or ten lesser works, and is a pure delight to watch.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Original Score: Joe Hisaishi
Voices (Hit-and-miss Disney English Dub):
Young Sophie - Emily Mortimer - so-so
Old Sophie - Jean Simmons - excellent
Howl - Christian Bale - does the job
Witch of the Wastes - Lauren Bacall - wonderful
Calcifer - Billy Crystal - his Catskills schtick is way off base for this film
Markyl - Josh Hutcherson - solid
Madam Suliman - Blythe Danner - reasonably good