Howl's Moving Castle

No one -- and I do mean no one -- in the field of Japanese animation has created as many masterpieces has Hayao Miyazaki. Say the name to true film fans, and there is a glimmer of recognition, even if they've never watched a single piece of anime. And over the years, I admit that I have been a Miyazaki apologist. I've placed news articles about the films from his Studio Ghibli on my front page countless times. He is, simply, a genius of the medium.

So what happens when a genius has an off day?

In Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki takes a book by Diana Wynne Jones and makes its story and characters his own. He does so with amazing finesse. To be honest, if I wasn't aware of the film's pedigree, I would have imagined the entire creation to be his alone. And from frame to frame, it is filled with amazing creativity from a master at work. However, it is a big enough story to have filled three hours. As I watched the film, I was transfixed on its beauty and plot, but many of the pieces fall apart when you try to fit them all together later. This isn't to say it isn't still amazing -- and I think I'd probably watch it again before some of Miyazaki's other films! -- but on a plot level, it is possibly the least satisfying film in the man's considerable oeuvre.

Sophie is an 18-year old who works a family hat shop in what would appear to be an early 20th century European town. She feels plain in comparison to her sisters and mother, who always make her feel drab in her single colored outfits that a 90-year-old might wear. All of them talk jokingly about Howl, a magician who lives in the nearby mountains, who supposedly swoons women with his handsome good looks. But Sophie doubts that any man would find her attractive.

However, Sophie does attract the attention of a couple of soldiers who bother her in an alleyway...until the appearance of Howl, who rescues her from their advances. He's giving chase to a bunch of black blob spirits who are after him, and he takes Sophie on a magical leap or two over the city to escape the pursuers. By that evening, Sophie thinks the incident is over and done, but an enormous woman barges into her shop after hours. It turns out this is the Witch of the Waste, who was pursuing Howl and rather fancies him. Jealous of Sophie, she turns her into an elderly crone, then walks out the door.

Sophie is mortified by this turn of events and hobbled by her condition. After devising a ploy to explain her absence from the shop, she heads off into the mountains to seek out a cure for her curse. Through a series of events, she winds up on the doorstep of Howl's castle, a massive monstrosity that walks the wastelands to avoid capture by Howl's enemies. The house is powered by Calcifer, a fire spirit, who is indelibly tied to Howl himself. As a cast of characters gathers within and around the house and a war rages between two kingdoms, all wanting a part of Howl's magic, we are drawn into Sophie's struggle to find a solution for her dilemma as she starts to fall for the charismatic yet immature wizard.

If you have never seen a Miyazaki film, then by all means rush to the theatre and see this one. HOWL is a lovingly rendered, hand-drawn wonder of animation, and even the jaded cynic will find the movie's look absolutely breathtaking. I've seen a few other modern spectacles lately, what with Appleseed (2004) and Steamboy, but despite their expertise, Howl's Moving Castle makes all their effort seem like child's play. A few of the vistas in this movie will take your breath away; they are among the most beautiful scenes I've had the privilege of seeing in any animated picture. We're talking the renaissance of 2D animation here, folks.

If you are willing to see Howl's Moving Castle as a gigantic, magical rollercoaster and hop on for the ride, then I believe you will have a most excellent time. Unlike most of Miyazaki's films, Howl is constantly in motion for almost all of its two-hour running time, and as Dr. Seuss says, oh the places you'll go! In the Japanese language version, the voice actors are a real delight. Calcifer is possibly the funniest sounding creature I've seen in a while, and the rest all do a great job. That's strange for me to say; I watch a lot of my anime in Japanese, but only rarely do I find a cast who really moves me, since I am merely understanding the "feel" of the sound alone. But Howl's Japanese cast delivers.

The other thing that Howl has going for it is truly endearing characters. Of all of Miyazaki's characters, Sophie is one of the best. She's not one of his typical teenagers, and when she turns into her 90-year-old self and experiences (at least for a time) what it would be like to be old, you feel for her. Although she is not Miyazaki's most self-possessed woman, she is strangely endearing. Howl himself is an interesting character study, charming and yet enigmatic, talented but easily wounded, smart and funny and yet sometimes juvenile. We cannot fully understand him, yet we like him. And Calcifer! I had wanted to see the English language version because I'm a Billy Crystal fan (the voice of Calcifer in the dub). After seeing the original, though, I'm not sure anybody else will work in the part, and part of it is because of Calcifer's impish yet warm demeanor conveyed so well in the original. I was very interested in each of these characters, more so than I was initially with Chihiro in Spirited Away or Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke.

But if you are a fan of Miyazaki, you might feel a bit of deja vu when watching Howl's Moving Castle. The leads are certainly interesting in their own right, but many of the other characters and devices are too reminiscent of his other pictures. The warships are echoes of Nausicaa; the Witch of the Waste and her minions are ports of Yubaba and No-Face from Spirited Away. Take enough time to compare, and many of the supporting cast and designs are retreads. Many directors recycle, but Miyazaki is such a creative soul that being able to spot a lot of repetition is a bit of a disappointment.

There's also simply too much ground to cover. When we find out that Sophie is starting to love Howl, we are told it; we do not see that love develop well. The plot, such as it is, doesn't have enough room for us to see the growing relationship, especially not how she cares for him despite the obvious problem of her age. Sure, we accept it, but do we believe it? I didn't. With perhaps fifteen more minutes, Miyazaki could have taken the time to open the film up and let it breathe.

The other issue that correlates with this is the plot, particularly near the end of the film. Simply put, we start entering dream logic that makes little literal sense. In a couple of recent interviews, Miyazaki has hinted around with thoughts like this, but he's a hard one to nail down. But we wind up with a sea of confusing thoughts that don't fall together. Is the war in the film real, or simply created to entrap Howl? Does Sophie ever beat the curse? Does Howl, the great magician, even realize Sophie is under a spell? Near the end, why does she keep changing forms back and forth from 20 year old to 90 year old? How do the film's final scenes work? What the heck is really going on? I can't answer these questions. Perhaps they weren't meant to have answers. Maybe we are supposed to realize that in a world of magic, sometimes the means don't make sense, only the ends. All well and good, but it makes for a film that is hyper-ambiguous. I like my films to at least have some internal logic, and this one doesn' least not as I can tell on my first viewing.

But did I have a good time? Oh, yeah, without a doubt. In fact, I was so entranced by the film that only during the credits did I start seeing holes as I tried to sort events out in my mind. I really liked this movie a lot, and so my problems came as an afterthought. In fact, I'm ready to see it again to notice what I missed and to see if there are any holes I can patch. So for me, it's definitely a recommendation. It is fun and excitement for the whole family, even with its scary moments. I think kids will love it; they won't think it all through, they'll just take it for what it is. Though it's my lowest graded Miyazaki film, it's still better than much of what you'll find in the cinema today.

Howl's Moving Castle -- fantasy violence, rated PG by the MPAA -- A-