Movie Review
Howl’s Moving Castle
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, Lauren Bacall

howl’s Moving Castle contains more spark and imagination in the first five minutes than most live action films contain in an entire screenplay. Yet being a work of animation puts it at an extreme disadvantage, since many narrow-minded individuals still view animated films as “mere” cartoons. It’s a real shame considering that in addition to having more imagination, Howl’s Moving Castle (despite its less than human characters) possesses more humanity than an assembly-line blockbuster like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, for example.

This is the norm for movies released by Japan’s Studio Ghibli (a perception that I suspect many have opened their eyes to since the overwhelming success of Spirited Away) which has released some of the most moving and innovative animated films of all time, rivaling any of the Disney classics. Perhaps that’s why, not surprisingly, Disney bought the rights to the domestic releases of all of Hayao Miyazaki’s work.

In Howl’s Moving Castle, he creates a world inhabited by wizards and witches in which a walking castle wouldn’t even draw a startled glance from a passerby. It’s here in this world, where the most fantastic things appear commonplace, that a simple woman named Sophie (Emily Mortimer) works dutifully at a quant little hat shop.

"Lookin' good, big sexy...”

Despite living in a world of magic, Sophie has resigned herself to a mundane life of routine; that is, until she has a magical encounter with Howl (Christian Bale), a young wizard who, as the title of the film suggests, inhabits the moving castle. Howl rescues her from a couple of belligerent soldiers only to drag her into problems of his own, as he’s pursued by a mob of angry demons (realized in typical Miyazaki fashion as dripping masses of black goop).

Once safe, Howl departs and for Sophie life might as well return to normal. But later that night she receives a visit from a grotesquely overweight woman who reveals herself to be the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). Jealous of the attention Howl has paid to her, the witch places a curse upon Sophie that causes her to age into a weary old lady.

For the remainder of the film Sophie must endure her condition as she encounters stranger and stranger creatures that guide her on her journey to lift this curse. At one point she is employed as a maid at Howl’s castle. There she meets a fire demon named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal) who controls the castle’s movements and has a mysterious connection to Howl himself. She is also reunited with her rescuer, but since the other part of the witch’s curse restricts Sophie from telling anyone about her condition, Howl doesn’t even realize who she is.

The film becomes increasingly complicated as character after character parades through the plot, threatening to bury it beneath its own inventiveness. However the consistently engrossing visuals help keep it afloat, particularly the castle itself, which within its walls transcends time and space with more bewitching and shifting corridors than even Borges could fathom. The spectacular artistry of the castle coupled with the inspired narrative puts the film well on its way to becoming another Miyazaki classic.

And then… and then?! Yes, and then we arrive at the most atrocious ending in Miyazaki’s entire career. It’s as if a magic wand were simply waved over all the characters’ transgressions and presto! –all their troubles simply disappear.

A tableau that would even freak out Lewis Carroll...

It’s at this point that I sank down in my seat, knowing I couldn’t simply disregard this, although I wanted to in light of the magical film that preceded this abomination of an ending. Recalling his past work only baffles me further. Since when did Miyazaki ever strive toward a tidy ending in which all the problems created by his stubborn human characters merely vanish?

I fear I can’t sweep this under the rug, but at the same time feel it would be unfair to allow it to discredit the entire film. My hope is that many will choose to weather this brief storm and simply enjoy a film that exhibits nine-tenths brilliance rather than allow their experience to be marred by a hastily cobbled together conclusion.

Aside from that I only have a minor complaint that the film isn’t offered in its original language track, since many of the celebrity voices (especially Billy Crystal) carry too much familiarity, distracting a great deal from the film’s more precious aspects. I certainly can’t hold it against the film itself since American audiences have a natural aversion to subtitles, making dubbing something like this a necessity if the studio has any hope for a commercial success. For now, it’s something to look forward to with the DVD release.

Inevitably, Howl’s doesn’t necessarily measure up alongside such Miyazaki treasures as Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro, but even a mediocre Miyazaki film still makes for a fantastic movie-going experience. Judging by the never-ending stream of crappy trailers that preceded this film it will be a long time before another animated movie matches this.

By: Dave Micevic
Published on: 2005-06-22
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