Howl’s Moving Castle | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn


Howl’s Moving Castle

This film review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, June 10, 2005.

Life is one dull routine for the young milliner Sophie (Emily Mortimer), and she seems to prefer it that way. She spends her days working in a back room of her widowed mother’s hat shop, avoiding contact with customers, resigned to a plodding, uninteresting existence. Even her chance back-alley meeting with a handsome young wizard (Christian Bale) on the run from mysterious bloblike monsters only reinforces her feelings of drabness.

But Sophie’s life is about to change. First, rumors of a missing prince and coming war sift ever closer to town. Second, the mechanical castle of wicked Howl, a wizard who is well known to eat the hearts of beautiful young women, has been spotted roaming the fog-shrouded hills nearby. Third, Sophie has unknowingly earned the enmity of the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who drops by the hat shop late one night with her frightening henchmen and transforms her into an old woman.

Unable to speak about the curse, Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) flees into the hills. When she helps free a scarecrow from the underbrush where it’s stuck, the scarecrow returns the favor by guiding Sophie to shelter. Worrisomely, the shelter turns out to be Wizard Howl’s steam-powered castle, but with no better idea how to survive in the wilderness, Sophie hops aboard.

Confronted by Howl’s young apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and a fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), Sophie bluffs her way into a job as cleaning lady and soon discovers that the castle door magically opens onto several different locations. But when Howl turns out to be the same vain wizard who saved her life, Sophie finds herself drawn into his world of intrigue and deception, the horrifying war claiming more and more of his humanity, and the mystery of the nature of her own curse.

“Moving” applies to more than just the castle

I find something elementally beautiful about the art and drama in Miyazaki’s work. It’s rare for me to watch one of his films without a constant stream of tears running down my cheeks, and Howl’s Moving Castle was no exception.

Howl’s Moving Castle, already Japan’s third highest grossing film ever, lands on American shores in a lovingly crafted English-language version that should appeal to more than just fans of anime. The look and feel will be familiar to devotees of Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier work, with its lush landscapes, mechanical marvels, gelatinous monsters, and themes of dislocation and transformation. Elements of the plot may be familiar as well, but for a different reason.

The film is based on the popular young-adult novel by Diana Wynne Jones, but fans looking for a direct translation of the book to the screen won’t find it here. Miyazaki, Japan’s reigning king of animation, has filtered the novel’s events through his own peculiar imagination and extracted a product that exists wholly as its own creation. Some incidents are retained from the book, but here they serve a different end.

Miyazaki’s vision weds medieval village life with Victorian fashions, magic with steampunk technology. Locomotives share the screen with a dazzling variety of insectoid flying machines and, of course, the wonderful ambulatory castle of the title. The backdrop of a distant, diversionary war sometimes rushes to the fore, as in terrifying air-raid scenes that recall the firebombing of Japanese cities in World War II.

But all is not darkness and horror. Howl’s Moving Castle is a gorgeous, fluid work of art, unfolding with subtlety and sly humor. The canvas is at times stuffed intricate detail, at others awe-inspiring in its simple widescreen vistas. The characters come to colorful life, from a Witch of the Waste corpulent and bloated with wickedness to the Calcifer’s eloquently supple body of flame. Sophie in particular is noteworthy, with occasional shifts in her physical appearance so understated that inattentive viewers might miss them.

Howl’s Moving Castle, good as it is, falls somewhat short of Miyazaki’s masterpiece, 2002’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away. The episodic structure leaves a few narrative gaps unexplained, and the madcap ending ties things off too neatly to be wholly satisfying. Still, viewers who give themselves up to the movie’s spell will be rewarded with the finest animation experience of the year.  

Howl’s Moving Castle
Voices of Christian Bale, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Emily Mortimer, Josh Hutcherson, and Billy Crystal
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones
Rated PG
Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney Pictures
Opens June 10

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