Howl's Moving Castle

Too busy for its own good, but bad Miyazaki is still better than nearly everything else.

Released in 2004, certified UK-U. Reviewed on 12 Oct 2005 by Scott Morris
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So, Howl's Moving Castle then, or Hauru no ugoku shiro if you're that way inclined. While the latest outing from anime godfather, nay legend Hayao Miyazaki doesn't come from his own pen, it features such a checklist of Miyazaki standard issue elements you'd be forgiven for mistaking it as one. Innocent, underappreciated teenage protagonist swept up in bizarre events utterly out of their control? Check. Heath Robinson flying contraptions? Check. Abundance of magicks? Yup. A fantastical world largely untouched by technology? Yup. Clear moral subtext to the involving action that's a delight for both kids and adults to watch? Erm ... no. Aw.

But we're rather getting ahead of ourselves. Sophie (Chieko Baisho or Emily Mortimer, depending on your language preference) is the aforementioned innocent, underappreciated teenage protagonist, a mousy young lass working in her parents hat making emporium. Believing herself dowdy for no readily discernible reason, her life is turned upside down in short order when the dashing sorcerer Howl (Christian Bale / Takuya Kimura) picks her up for a short walk in the air for no readily discernible reason away from some weird shadow monster things. For no readily discernible reason the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall / Akihiro Miwa), who clearly is Wicked, slaps a curse on Sophie turning her into an old woman (Jean Simmons).

Despite an initial and understandable panic Sophie doesn't wind up too concerned about this, although as part of the curse utilises a Fight Club paradigm (the first rule of this curse is that you cannot talk about this curse) she decides to skip town, heading out to the waste. There she's befriended by a bouncing scarecrow for no readily discernable reason who helps her to the nearest shelter in a developing storm, which happens to be the moving castle itself. As if a castle stomping around a wasteland (Howl's home, obviously, powered by the tamed fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal / Tatsuya Gashuin)) wasn't quite enough, there's also a war going on between two rival Kingdoms, and all magic-wielders including Howl are being called upon to fight. Being somewhat cowardly, or perhaps just sensible, Howl doesn't much fancy this, putting him at odds with the Kingdom's head wizard Madam Suliman (Blythe Danner / Haruko Kato). Phew.

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Right, negativity out of the way first. There's just too much going on. It gets messy, it loses focus, it becomes dilute. The striking thing about most of Miyazaki's work and the thing that makes it so spellbinding was always the purity of it, the clarity in it that subtler, more complex undertones were frequently woven into. In comparison, Howl's Moving Castle is a big muddy puddle, with too many things just thrown in without adequate prior notice. The story seems to get far too busy far too quickly, and then struggles to get back to what you assumed that the main plotlines would be based on the first ten minutes leaving a harried, hasty conclusion that doesn't bring the satisfaction of, say, Laputa or Spirited Away. Indeed, quite what the take-home message of Howl's Moving Castle is muddied by the overreaching narrative, and that's not something you could level at Miyazaki's other works.

It does match his previous bests visually, however. Howl's Moving Castle looks absolutely stunning, the sort of thing that you just have to go and see because it's so very, very pretty. The character design has the typical Miyazaki elegant simplicity and the titular Castle itself is a joy to behold, the sort of wonderfully convoluted machine that in a more joyfilled, less sensible would just have to exist. The subtle use of CG in the landscapes continues from Spirited Away to the same lovely effect, and the scenes of the devastation caused by the senseless war are amongst Miyazaki's best.

The dubbed version, the only version of which I have only been able to take in at this juncture, continues the Mickey Mouse Corporation's run of entirely adequate localisation. Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons's young and old Sophie's sound like each other, which is vital to the role (for a while I didn't realise they were being played by different people, so convincing was it) and the character development that is shown through the voice acting more than anything else puts most dramas released these days to shame. Despite a few moments where the translation puts some distinctly odd words (and laughs) into Christian Bale's Howl, it's still an accomplished performance. There is altogether too much Billy Crystal however; Science has now determined that the optimum quantity of Billy Crystal in anything at all is zero and as such there's just too much Billy Crystal present.

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Most of which seems to mark Howl's Moving Castle as something of a disappointment. Compared to Miyazaki's body of work, that's maybe accurate, but in this 'Year of Mediocrity' ? this film is like a shining beacon of hope, a film that has real vision and real scope, even if the execution isn't absolutely flawless. This isn't paying lip service to the effort put in either, Howl's Moving Castle is genuinely charming.

It's easy to be swept along in Miyazaki world, it's so rich, so vibrant, so full of life and wonder. There's moments where it gets too bogged down with the plot and it drags a little, but largely it just bounces and flows on revealing such beauty and attention to detail that any number of sins can be forgiven. Yes, sitting and talking about it after the fact it's easy to pick holes in it compared the stratospheric standard Miyazaki typically maintains, but he's still light years ahead of nigh on everyone else in the animation industry and even slightly disappointing Miyazaki is significantly better than most people's output in most disciplines of cinema. Even the undisputed kings of Western animation Pixar, despite several charming and amusing tales to their vast credit haven't come within a country mile of the imagination and exuberance Miyazaki has shown over his career. I'll be vastly surprised if any Miyazaki work doesn't get a cast iron recommendation from these quarters, and this is no exception.

That said, it does have Billy Crystal in it. You have been warned.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Hayao Miyazaki
Cast list:
Chieko Baisho /Emily Mortimer / Jean Simmons (Sophie)
Takuya Kimura / Christian Bale (Hauru)
Tatsuya Gashuin / Billy Crystal (Karushif?)