Monday, June 20, 2011

Howl's Moving Castle - Animated Perfection

Let me kick this off by stating: you'll see that a lot of my reviews have carefully-placed, nice pictures, usually with captions beneath. I'm skipping that this time out - not from laziness, just because I sometimes like going left when I should go right. \English and Japanese trailers only this time, unless convinced otherwise. Now...

Japanese writer-director Hayao Miyazaki has an enviable career. His animated movies are all beautiful, with excellent scores and inventive plots. His Studio Ghibli, much like Pixar, often creates mature tales within the confines of kid's stories. Very rarely does HM produce something "so-so" or mediocre. Nearly every work is dazzling, and each one is a financial blockbuster. 

Which brings us to 2004 and "Howl's Moving Castle." I feel a bit guilty - it's the only Miyazaki I haven't watched in the original language. I got a 7-movie set of Hayao's work, but "HMC" wasn't part of it. I caught the film on cable and was completely floored. I may rag on American studios for over-dubbing in English, but Disney chose wisely with Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, and Billy Crystal providing the voiceovers.

"Howl's" begins in what looks like a fantastical 19th Century European town. There are bakeries, hat stores, dirigibles, and big squares with uniformed troops and civilians wearing suits and gowns. Sophie, the protagonist, takes an alley shortcut during a quick walk, then is accosted by two repulsive soldiers. A man rescues her from them, but a widely-feared witch (and her blob monster?!) comes looking for her savior. The aptly-named Witch of the Waste curses Sophie out of spite.

So the 18-ish haberdasher is in a body that's 70+ years older, and Sophie feels she can't return to her life. Now a wandering old woman, she travels to abandoned lands to find the infamous magician that witch was hunting. Soon Sophie is a housekeeper with a secret - but she's working in a walking, steampunk house that's larger inside than outside and has doors that open into different cities. Also, it has a talkative living flame in the fireplace.

Throughout, war is a major aspect of the story. A nearby kingdom can't find its prince, and blames the kingdom that Sophie lives in. Magic-users from around the realm are called to fight in this brutal "magic war" to save innocent lives - and to strike viciously at the enemy. Perhaps worst of all, this anger and violence is having an unexpected, disturbing effect on the magical soldiers.

This element is not always at the forefront of the story, any more than warfare completely dominates anyone's life. It does more than add a background to the tale, tho, or provide a few exciting scenes. It generates interesting questions like "will Howl fight?," "for which side?," and "what will all this bloodshed and rage do to him?" The answers may seem a little confusing (or, honestly, overly-familiar to anime fans), but it's compelling and thoroughly-enjoyable, regardless.

I should stress how connected the war subplot is to the characterization. The "unexpected, disturbing effect" that I mentioned two paragraphs above threatens Howl as well. And no matter the size of the kingdom he lives in, the war can appear in any place, at any time. This "backdrop," then, threatens the soul of the title character, and thus the people in his life.

It's hard to call out the flaws in a picture like this. I think everyone uses different standards when watching animation instead of live-action, a trade-off we all accept because we can see impossible stuff like a super hero family in hiding or a faun lose her mother in a forest fire. It's also hard to distinguish a weakness from a genuine failing, at times. I'll take a shot:

Calcifer may be grating for some; this, however, is probably appropriate. Although I can't fault Crystal's performance, I especially look forward to hearing the flame demon in Japanese. Howl's reveal could seem slow enough to be frustrating. The end itself might feel long or weird in tone, before the payoff, at least. And I bet that some will have a problem with specific parts of Sophie's interaction with witches.

I either felt or briefly wondered about everything I just described, so I consider those a prediction of some "reasonable" complaints to level against "HMC." Nothing came close to ruining the experience, and some issues disappeared for me as the movie progressed. The weaknesses here are easy to ignore.

It's no wonder, as what unfolds onscreen is so creative and well-produced. You won't have time for gripes, even as the story gets more and more complex, or makes a big deal out of a small group ascending a staircase.

My favorite part of "Howl's Moving Castle" occurs around the 5 minute mark, when Howl gets Sophie away from those soldiers I mentioned above. Walking in with a cape and a smile, he responds to their aggression by telling them to leave. After the men unwilling march away, some kind of big black blob pushes its way into the alley and goes after Sophie and Howl.

The young man, calm and charming the whole time, escorts her to her destination in a genuinely enchanting scene. It may be a more breath-taking version of a similar moment in "Spirited Away" - I think I prefer this one. Both, however, struck me the same way: stunned joy. A lovely waltz kicks in at exactly the right moment, and it should be hard to not fall in love with the picture.

I admire the story's handling of Howl as a character - he is perhaps the best thing in "HMC." As much as I look forward to the original Japanese picture, Christian Bale was perfect. He gives off exactly the sort of vibe that the part needs. The skilled writing also creates a great ambivalent effect: you can truly debate, through most of the 119 minute running time, if he's good or evil.

After all, this is a youthful man who's incredibly powerful. He's so capable and relaxed, though there's so much going on with him. And he's wildly positive - it's almost creepy or pathological. He confronts so many problems in such a self-possessed way, usually in a blaisé manner that's nearly obnoxious.

I love that there's something a little off about him; it's really quite fun and it pays off. While someone in the audience may think it takes a long time to learn about his surprising past, Miyazaki never diminishes the air of mystery around Howl. Also, you'll be too busy enjoying the picture. It's refreshing to have a central character like this.

In fact, one good comparison for Howl is Willy Wonka from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Each is an intriguing, vivid, and loud character - whereas Wonka isn't in the story's title, Howl is, yet isn't the protagonist. Both parts, however, are the focal and driving points of their respective stories and each man functions more like a genie than a human role.

And tho anything can happen around them, we're never sure what's going on inside Willy or Howl, do we? Only at the end does a viewer learn what's really in Howl's head, or know what Willy's deal is. I often wondered if the wizard could turn out to have some evil design, or end up being an illusion or a ghost...

It doesn't matter that gossip can be wildly wrong, the infamous magician does have a rep for winning, then cursing and abandoning, attractive women. He's surrounded by dark stories, and all his actions and words can be interpreted in many ways. Sophie surely gets to see his unpredictable, spiky, temper. A beautiful, pleasant or charming facade means nothing in a world of magic.

I don't mean to short-change Sophie, as she's everything a fairy-tale lead should be. The character is distinct from previous heroines: older than most, she's more independent, centered, and mature than Chihiro in "Spirited," or San in "Princess Mononoke." She has an impressive determination and endurance, which plays nicely off her occasional despair or lack of confidence.

Emily Mortimer's performance is fine; she's a steady and skilled actress. While I like her in the part, I was simply too impressed by Bale. I guess I was almost shocked at how he plays it. And it's easier to forget her as Sophie, since Mortimer doesn't voice the older version of her role.

Sophie is a great heroine, and her personality works as a contrast to Howl. She helps him stand out through their similarities, as well. While she also displays a lot of ingenuity and bravery, she does it in a very different way than the wizard. The two roles may be most alike in that they keep pushing on, trying to live positively under unpleasant circumstances.

If "HMC" feels familiar at all, it's because of certain aspects of the ending - the field, the final door Sophie enters, the ultimate struggle. Of course, Miyazaki's style is likely the larger cause... As I've claimed repeatedly, now, he's the Japanese Roald Dahl of film animation.

It's something you have to be prepared to accept. These stories are often "fairy tales," often follow parent-less youths on a journey of growth and discovery, and often portray a tenuous line between good and evil. The constant elements are there because they are themes - it's not a lack of creativity.

As in "Spirited Away," the supporting parts - a child-magician in training, a helpful scarecrow that bounces like a pogo stick, the fire demon, various witches - are all fleshed-out figures. They have contradictions, subtleties, and contribute a lot to the development of the narrative and the leads. The adorable, the touching, the crass and threatening all co-exist, as with some of the most-revered kids' stories.

Excellent action, great characters, interesting storylines, and a genuine emotional connection between the film and the audience. How I wish they made more movies like this! Hollywood has the CGI technology now to make something similar into a live-action picture - but still we'd likely end up with lifeless, pretty garbage like "Attack of the Clones."

When I walk into a theater, I hope for something like "HMC."  Like the best music, there's never a bad time for this kind of film. Anyone should be able to pick up and watch and enjoy the holy bejeesus out of "Howl's Moving Castle." The 80 Metacritic and 86% Rotten Tomatoes scores are simply too low.

If I haven't given up many details, take it as a sign that I don't want to ruin any of the surprises that you've got ahead of you. If you're the sort of person that would care about this: it's in the IMDb's "Top 5000," and grossed $231 Mil worldwide. Just see it and let me know what you think.


  1. Good review.

    Howl's Moving Castle, while great, fails to compare to Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. A comparison may not be fair, though, since Howl is adapted from a British novel, but in terms of enjoyment, I thought the aforementioned were superior. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy Howl's Moving Castle. I consider it a favorite and plan to read the novel.

    Based on the Miyazaki films I've seen, here is how I rate them:
    Princess Mononoke (10)
    Spirited Away (9)
    Howl's Moving Castle (8)
    Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (8)

    1. Thanks! I fell in love with this movie, honestly. Mch in the same fashion that Spirited Away did, really.

      My ratings would be:
      Spirited Away
      Howl's Moving Castle
      Princess Mononoke
      Kiki's Delivery Service tied with Laputa
      Castle of Cagliostro
      My Neighbor Totoro
      Porco Rosso

      Not sure about scores, yet, tho


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