Howl's Moving Castle (Japan, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Now that Disney has joined Fox and Dreamworks in abandoning traditional animation for that of the 3-D computer generated variety, hand-drawn animation has become an endangered species (although, given the cyclical nature of this sort of thing, it will probably eventually re-emerge). Perhaps the only high-profile hold-out of this venerable genre to reach U.S. movie screens is Hayao Miyazaki, Japan's premiere animated filmmaker. Known for nearly two decades by fans of Japanese anime, Miyazaki gained widespread American exposure when his previous feature, Spirited Away, won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2003. Since then, Miyazaki's latest, Howl's Moving Castle, has been awaited with great anticipation.

Although it is as visually evocative and as narratively imaginative as any of Miyazki's previous efforts, Howl's Moving Castle, doesn't quite ascend to the pinnacle achieved by Spirited Away or its predecessor, Princess Mononoke. Part of this has to do with the nature of the protagonist, who isn't as appealing as Spirited Away's Chihiro, and part has to do with the rushed ending, which feels as if it was truncated to shoehorn the production into a two-hour slot. Nevertheless, despite being based on Englishwoman Diana Wynne Jones' book, Howl's Moving Castle feels like pure Miyazaki, complete with his fusion of the surreal and the mystical with the everyday. And, like all of the filmmaker's movies, this feature is likely to find more favor with adults than children (although, in terms of content, it's appropriate for all but the youngest viewers). It refuses to "talk down" to its audience and may baffle many kids (and more than a few adults).

The story centers around Sophie (voice of Emily Mortimer), a young girl who is transformed via a curse into an old crone (voice of Jean Simmons). In an attempt to reverse the curse, Sophie tracks down the mysterious wizard Howl (voice of Christian Bale), who is the victim of another magical affliction. Howl lives in a strange moving castle that travels across the land under the power of the fire demon Calcifer (voice of Billy Crystal), who shares an intimate connection with the bizarre vehicle's master. Together, Sophie and Howl, along with a few oddball friends (including a mobile scarecrow and a dog who is more than he seems), seek to find resolutions to their problems against the backdrop of a war-torn setting.

The vocal cast is solid, although uninspired. Aside from Billy Crystal, who gives voice to Calcifer, no one provides distinctive tones. Emily Mortimer and Christian Bale, who play Sophie and Howl respectively, sound generic, and Lauren Bacall (as the Witch of the Waste) does a good job hiding her voice. Those who have seen the subtitled version indicate that the original actors are more expressive. Having only viewed the English-language edition, I can't comment on that assertion but, unlike some of the recent Pixar and Dreamworks animated offerings, this one does not feature any star performances. The focus here is clearly on the majesty of Miyazaki's visuals.

As is typically the case with Miyazaki films, the greatest enjoyment comes from experiencing the various set pieces rather than absorbing the entire storyline. Howl's Moving Castle contains its share of breathtaking moments (such as Sophie's flight from the witch and Calcifer's transformation of the castle). The overall plot, which at times seems derivative of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, serves the purpose of giving Miyazaki a clothesline upon which to hang all of the impressive sequences, but it doesn't do much more. At times, things that happen can be confusing. For example, Sophie's appearance to us changes based on who she's with and how they see her. It's a stylistic device, but it's disconcerting at first. Finally, even the director's most die-hard defenders have to admit that the ending is perfunctory. Quibbles aside, however, this is the best-looking and most complex animated film of the year to-date, and offers a more satisfying experience than either Robots or Madagascar. Miyazaki may not have achieved the level of Spirited Away, but he's still ahead of the curve.

Howl's Moving Castle (Japan, 2004)

Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 2005-06-10
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1