Howl's Moving Castle
2005, PG, 119 min. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Voices by Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Billy Crystal, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 17, 2005
The films of legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki have often paired adult themes with the sort of whimsical lightness that Walt Disney, once upon a time, so effortlessly conjured, and this newest, the third-highest grossing film in Japanese history, is no exception. From Princess Mononoke’s bounding ecological storyline to Spirited Away’s story of greed and redemption, Miyazaki constructs the most adult children’s films around, and ones that are firmly rooted in a heady sort of Japanese mysticism that echoes and multiplies the films’ pleasantly intoxicating surrealism. (For my money, 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro remains his most profound work, a giddy, sometimes somber examination of childhood fears and magic that has propeled and informed all of the animator’s films since.) Howl’s Moving Castle is the story of Sophie (Mortimer), a teenager with body issues who lives in what looks like turn-of-the-century Bavaria. One day she’s transformed into a 90-year-old woman by the Witch of the Waste (Bacall), which in an American film would be viewed as the gravest of curses but here acts as an emotionally and psychologically liberating experience. Nevertheless, the unfamiliar aches and pains of the aged send her out into the mountains in search of a cure, and there she meets the young wizard Howl (Bale) and his titular castle. Powered by the friendly fire-demon Calcifer (Crystal), the peripatetic manse is the true protagonist of the film, and it’s a doozy. Jouncing along on spindly, metallic chicken legs like some modern-day incarnation of Baba Yaga’s hut, this perambulating homestead is an interdimensional marvel, existing in multiple planes at once and allowing Howl to evade conscription into a war that’s broken out between two rival cities. It needs to be said that much of the plot of Howl’s Moving Castle lacks the forthright clarity of, say, Princess Mononoke (even that was a stretch for stateside viewers weaned on the eminently predictable plotting of most American animated films), and here it sometimes feels as if the story, adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’ novel, is merely a contrivance from which to dangle an increasingly wondrous series of images. That would be deadly in most animated films, but Miyazaki’s visuals are so expressive and so organically warm that it’s barely a consideration here. Only at the film’s rushed afterthought of a finale does the vaporous storyline really annoy. Miyazaki’s anti-war theme is handled with appropriately kidlike gloves, although by the film’s end there’s a real sense of jeopardy at work. The voice acting, from new Batman Bale to the almost unrecognizable Bacall, is fine – even Crystal reigns in his usual Borscht Belt bravado – if a little plain. It’s not Miyazaki’s best work, but it is leagues beyond any traditional 2-D animation out of 3-D-mad Hollywood lately, and more beguiling than anything Disney’s done in ages. (A subtitled print is screening at the Arbor.)