Two years ago, Spirited Away won an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture. For many Americans, it was their first taste of the fantastic world of Hayao Miyazaki (and if you haven’t seen his other films, get thee to the Video Station).
Miyazaki follows it up with another magical movie with a strong young heroine named Sophie.
PG for frightening images, mild language
Sophie (voiced by both Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons in the dubbed American release) makes hats in a nameless, quaint, post-Victorian village. She encounters a hunk of a young man in an alley who is trying to escape from some oil-blob baddies who materialize out of the walls. Sophie seems as surprised by their appearance as we are, although that’s not half as surprising as when the boy flies her home to her balcony.
Soon thereafter, an enormous witch with six or seven chins visits Sophie and casts a spell on her, turning her into an old woman and forbidding her to speak of the spell. Who are these people? Why are they picking on a poor hatmaker? And who is this Howl person that the witch mentioned? We’d like to know, too.
Knowing she won’t be able to explain her old-crone appearance to her family, Sophie sneaks out of town and hikes up the hillside into The Waste to seek out Howl, a wizard who might be able to do something. She helps a turnip-headed scarecrow along the way, who leads her to a gigantic walking castle. Inside, she befriends a fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal, who is grating until you acclimate to his voice), a boy apprentice named Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and a familiar-looking wizard named Howl (Christian Bale).
At two hours long, the movie covers a lot of ground, but the plot boils down to this: many different people need to undo curses and spells that keep them from being their true selves.
Howl’s Moving Castle has all the hallmarks of a Miyazaki film. There is a strong heroine who has to undo some unexplained magic. There are gorgeous scenes of landscapes and skies, given scale by tiny foreground people. There are fanciful flying machines, fascinating faces, and mysterious, silent creatures of menace. There are also characters who turn out to be good, despite our negative first impressions.
Visually, Howl’s Moving Castle is as good as any other Miyazaki movie. The world looks like Alaska in summertime. There are green grassy wetlands sprinkled liberally with small wildflowers and clear, cool daylight. There are quaint villages, and there is even a royal palace that seems inspired by China’s Forbidden City. The titular castle is an amazing contraption so detailed you can’t take it all in with a single glance. The characters, too, are animated with all the love and attention needed to bring them to life.
Reservations for Two
The plot, however, doesn’t seem as compelling as Sen’s rescue of her parents in Spirited Away or of the restoration of the forest in Princess Mononoke. Lifting spells and breaking curses seems pretty abstract, and feels more like a contrivance than some of Miyazaki’s other movie’s plots. It also lends itself to some anti-climactic climaxes. In fact, some in my audience seemed to find all the spell-breaking a bit corny, particularly when turnip-head turned back into .... well, you’ll see, and you might find it corny too.
Also, the otherworldliness of Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t as complete as it is in, say, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Princess Mononoke. Those films had places and things that seemed to comprise an entire conceptual universe, completely different from our own. Miyazaki doesn’t always make a new world; Kiki’s Delivery Service (one of my favorites) is essentially European, and Porco Rosso is explicitly Italian. So it’s not necessarily a criticism to say that one can recognize our world in Howl’s Moving Castle; only that it’s not as fantastically engrossing as some of his other films.
Worthy of the Big Screen
But even if you agree with these critiques, Howl’s Moving Castle is still an amazing movie. It’s a lot like Miyazaki’s other films, but his style is completely different from animated features like DreamWorks’ Madagascar, Pixar’s Toy Story, or even Walt Disney’s run of features from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King. Howl’s Moving Castle is a wonderful, worldly, magical movie.
Don’t wait for the video. Even the best home theater will not show you the loving detail packed into every shadow and every corner of the frame. See Howl on the big screen, and then go rent any Miyazaki film you might have missed.