Howl’s Moving Castle
April 20, 2006
Each new film from world-renowned Japanimator Hayao Miyazaki has become an event and Howl’s Moving Castle, a tale of magic, curses and lost identity doesn’t disappoint.
Miyazaki was first brought to mainstream western attention in 2003 when he won Best Animated Feature with Spirited Away (though it was originally released in 2001). He was already well-known and widely respected amongst the animation community but with Spirited Away the world awakened to the genius of the ‘Japanese Disney’. The comparison is apt (his films often have talking animal supporting characters and colourful backgrounds) but unlike Disney’s safe, strictly child-orientated fare, Miyazaki’s work appeals just as much to adults, never shying away from blood (Princess Mononoke, 1997) or complex human dramas that develop in some nevertheless bizarre surroundings.
Miyazaki’s favourite work pre Spirited Away has arguably been My Neighbour Totoro from 1988 – on the face of things a fluffy tale about a creature living in the forest, but is actually a story about moving house and dealing with a sick mother (the film was inspired by Miyazaki’s own mother’s illness). His follow up, Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) was about a witch and her talking cat Jiji, but was also about the fear of living on your own for the first time and the responsibility of keeping a job.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) arrived with a much bigger hype-machine after the Oscar, obviously leaving some disappointed, but this is one of Miyazaki’s best, with the strongest English dub to date (though purists will balk if you watch anything other than the subtitled version in Japanese, and with valid reason). Emily Mortimer voices Sophie, a hat maker in a small town who after meeting wizard Howl is cursed by a jealous witch who wants Howl to herself. Turned into an old woman, Sophie sets out to find Howl (Bale) and reverse the spell. She becomes the housekeeper in Howl’s Moving Castle – so called due it’s tendency to walk around the countryside at will – after making a deal with Calcifer the flame (don’t ask).
As always the animation is gorgeous, leaving the ‘2-D animation is dead’ argument lying in a ditch, and the story is full of imaginative ideas that will please both young and old (has a film ever portrayed old age quite so wonderfully as Miyazaki does here?). The only argument is perhaps there’s too much going on at once, and chances are adults will be scratching their heads on points of philosophy while the kids are laughing at the cute wheezing dog. Still, there’s no doubting the magic on display, both literal and emotional, especially in one scene where Sophie travels back in time to witness how Howl got his powers.
Slightly weightier than other Ghibli installments, which basically have a trailer and some storyboards, Howls gets the best treatment of the lot with an interview with author Diana Wynne Jones (Miyazaki adapted her book), an interview with Peter Docter (dialogue director for the English language version) and Director Hayao Miyazaki’s visit to Pixar. There’s also a behind the scenes explanation of CG, Theatrical trailer, Japanese trailers, TV spots and the always watchable Studio Ghibli trailer reel. Magic.