It’s an interesting coincidence that Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (Haura no ugoku shiro) should open locally the same week as War of the Worlds, since both films involve striking images of war-torn landscapes and cities being blasted out of existence by fanciful machines.
Equally interesting is the fact that Miyazaki’s film is far more effective as drama than Spielberg’s disaster-thon. Miyazaki manages to create characters that — however fantasticated — seem considerably more human than Spielberg’s Hollywood constructs. Not that Miyazaki’s film is in need of boosting by comparing it to a lesser movie, but it’s telling that a little, handmade animated fantasy should have more power than $130 million worth of Hollywood bombast.
It’s risky to make sweeping pronouncements about the quality of a movie only a few hours after seeing it for the first time (I’m still wondering what altered state of mind produced that four-star rating I gave Signs), but I have no reservations about saying that Howl’s Moving Castle is the best film I’ve seen all year. Going out on a bit of a limb, I’d even say it’s Miyazaki’s most astonishing film so far.
The story line, which is loosely adapted from a book by British writer Diana Wynne Jones, is a fairly typical Miyazaki affair set in a fantastic — and fantastically beautiful — Ruritanian land with Japanese touches. A young milliner, Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), earns the jealous displeasure of the Wicked Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall), who objects to the attention that Howl (voiced by Christian Bale) pays Sophie when he rescues her from some soldiers. In order to get back at Sophie, the witch transforms her into an old woman (voiced by Jean Simmons). Realizing that her new appearance would prove problematic, Sophie ventures into the Wasteland, where a helpful one-legged scarecrow with a turnip for a head leads her to the titular castle — a truly brilliant construction of turrets and pipes that seems assembled from a junkyard and wanders the countryside on magical/mechanical bird legs.
Once inside the castle, Sophie meets Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal), a fire demon under a spell who is in charge of running the ambulatory castle, and settles into the role of housekeeper — a development that is rather easily accepted by Howl and his young companion, Markl (voice by Josh Hutcherson, Kicking and Screaming). Then again, since the film takes place in a world where magic and spells are an everyday occurrence — not to mention that we’re in a castle with a door that can open onto different parts of the world, depending on how a dial is set — it isn’t much of a stretch to believe in their unconcerned attitude toward an unannounced addition to the household. In addition, it seems to have fallen to animated films to constantly redefine what constitutes a family, making this aspect of the film part and parcel of that concept.
Despite the apparent age difference, Sophie falls in love with Howl, who, it transpires, is also suffering from a kind of spell that allows him to transform into a bird-like creature — an incarnation that one day threatens to overtake his human self. It’s impossible to recount the entire story, but the plot is not what gives Howl its greatness. Given that so much happens in the film that you’re always wondering what will happen next, the story is central to the film, but it’s the combination of the characterizations, the little bits of philosophical truths dropped here and there in the dialogue, and the sheer visual dazzlement that truly make the film what it is.
Howl is very much in the Miyazaki mold. There’s the sense of something sinister lurking just beneath the surface — a sense that is often at odds with what finally occurs. There’s the lack of actual villains and heroes; even the most dubious of characters — the Witch of the Waste, for example — turn out to be better than they seem, or, at the very least, understandable in their perfidy.
This aspect of Miyazaki’s world view is taken a step further here with the film’s warring kingdoms: They both lay claim to Howl’s services, but he won’t quite align with either of them. At a key point in the proceedings, Howl remarks on the approach of a war plane. When Sophie asks if it’s “one of ours,” he replies, “Does it matter?” Indeed, the war itself is ultimately incomprehensible. We’re given little reason why the two countries are fighting, which makes a strong antiwar statement — especially in an age when a real war is being waged for reasons (excuses?) that are constantly shifting.
The thrust of the story, however, lies in the theme of seeing beyond the obvious in a “beauty is only skin deep” manner, which Miyazaki brilliantly conveys by gradually softening the old Sophie so that, occasionally, she’s glimpsed as her real self and becomes progressively less of an old crone as the movie advances. In the end, it matters not what Sophie looks like, but who she is.
Of course, we’ve been given the Americanized version of Miyazaki’s film, which has been revoiced by name-brand talent. And while that matters less with an animated film than with a regular movie, here it does take a certain toll. Really, only Lauren Bacall and Jean Simmons (and to a lesser extent, Emily Mortimer) contribute significant performances. For that matter, Billy Crystal — doing his Borscht Belt shtick — does nothing to help. But the film is overall such a wondrous thing that it overpowers even this misstep. It’s the one movie out there right now that truly qualifies as a “must-see.” Rated PG for frightening images and brief mild language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke