Appellate Judge James A. Stewart used to have a moving castle. Unfortunately, he went on vacation—and it moved, leaving no forwarding address.
"This isn't so bad, is it? You're in pretty good shape and your clothes
finally suit you."
What in the world is Howl's Moving Castle? It was one of the top 20 films in the world in 2005, according to Box Office Mojo, but with only $4.7 million in U.S. box office, the Japanese anime epic flew under the radar here.
Facts of the Case
Something is coming out of the fog. It looks and sounds like a huge mechanical beast—albeit one designed by Terry Gilliam in his Monty Python animator days—as it lumbers toward town. What is this thing? Sophie (for now, the voice of Emily Mortimer, The Pink Panther, Match Point) isn't paying any attention to this. She's got more important things to do—like finishing the hats she's stitching in her family shop. Still, Sophie's about to learn a lot about Howl's Moving Castle.
The lesson begins when two soldiers block Sophie's path as she heads to the bakery for a sweet break. The wizard Howl (Christian Bale, Batman Begins) appears, sending the two military mashers away as if they were mere toy soldiers. He's rescued Sophie for now, but those blob-like things following him threaten them both. The only way to go from here is up. Hence, Sophie gets her first lesson from Howl—how to walk on air.
Sophie's also about to get a cruel lesson in jealousy from the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not, Key Largo), who breezes into the hat shop and leaves something for Sophie—a curse. Sophie quickly becomes a 90-year-old woman; when she tries to explain the curse, she becomes unable to speak. When she does speak, she now does it with the voice of Jean Simmons (Spartacus, Elmer Gantry).
Our plucky young—er, old—heroine isn't ready for the rest home yet, though. She sets off into the wasteland, looking for a way to reverse the spell. Soon she comes across an overturned scarecrow whom she dubs Turniphead. He's a very helpful scarecrow, lending her a cane and pointing the way to Howl's moving castle.
When she boards the moving castle, Sophie meets its other occupants: Calcifer (voice of Billy Crystal, City Slickers), a fire demon who has been tamed as the power source for the castle and doesn't particularly like it, and young wizard-in-training Markl (Josh Hutcherson). She also learns about the castle itself. Depending on how the wheel by the door spins, you could end up in the wastes or the Royal City when you walk out the door. A little bit of roulette before breakfast never hurt anybody who knows the secret, though.
Sophie joins the castle crew as a cleaning woman, but soon becomes a part of the family, even posing as Howl's mother to fool evil Suliman (Blythe Danner), the King's sorceress.
Howl's Moving Castle comes from the book by Diana Wynne Jones, but passed through the mind of Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke), known as the "Walt Disney of Japan." He may dislike the moniker, as IMDb points out, but Disney showed its interest in him by releasing this and other Miyazaki titles.
There's always something happening in Howl's Moving Castle, and it can be confusing at times. When Sophie first wakes up in the castle and steps out into the Royal City instead of the wastes she saw the night before, viewers have something to puzzle out with old Sophie. The movie has a dreamlike logic that flows beautifully if you just go along for the ride, but not if you think about it much.
If you do take that ride, it's a beautiful one. In a few instances, the backgrounds look real for a moment—until a flying battleship appears. Whether realistic or not, the English village where Sophie has her hat shop, the Royal City, Howl's secret garden, and even the wastelands have a detail and style that's undeniably mesmerizing. Sophie's town and the Royal City market quarter have a lifelike Victorian look, giving way to the grandeur of the Palace which towers over the city, with halls that seemingly go on forever, a floor with a shine that reveals reflections, and colorful indoor gardens under glass. Even Howl's bedroom is intricately drawn, with something going on in every corner. Watch those moving eyeballs. Various flight sequences show off the landscapes, whether in the verdant inhabited areas or in the harsh blue-and-gray wastes, to best effect. The transfer and Dolby sound capture the original majesty of the film well.
While the animation is excellent, what makes this movie special is the evolution of and interplay between the characters. Howl may be the title character, but Sophie's quest is the heart of the story, which shows how she starts to live life more fully as an elderly woman. This is best illustrated in a scene where the aged Sophie, carrying a dog, moves up the steps faster and more gracefully than the Witch of the Waste, who wonders where the elderly woman gets her energy. You may wonder, too. Howl seems like a strong, omnipotent character when his castle first flies and walks into town, but the movie generally shows him as a conflicted character, afraid of the King's call for wizards to join his war, then rebellious against it. The vain wizard also lacks self-confidence, sending Sophie to face Suliman at the palace. Billy Crystal's Calcifer is probably the friendliest demon you'll ever meet in a fantasy movie; he gripes at times, but has an undying loyalty to Howl and, eventually, to Sophie, even as his flame begins to flicker out. Rounding out the castle regulars, Markl seems intimidated by Howl's tantrums and Calcifer's flare-ups, but becomes more confident himself under the influence of the unflappable Sophie. Even Lauren Bacall's seemingly irretrievable Witch of the Wastes shows personal growth by the end of the picture.
In the features, an interview with the director of the American version, Pete Docter, reveals that when he first saw the Japanese version of the movie, he didn't understand it all, either. If you missed anything, you may find that comforting. The featurettes cover the translation and dubbing process, as well as a meeting between Hayao Miyazaki and Pixar Executive Vice President John Lasseter as the new English-language version is first screened. The second disc is devoted to the storyboards of the movie (all of it, not just a few scenes), a feature that didn't impress me but might prove valuable for budding manga artists or animators.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I didn't find this movie violent or offensive, but a few sequences—like a scene where Howl's depressed mood comes to life, in which black blobs start to fill the room and the wizard literally begins to melt—might be too intense to share this one with the little kids.
Especially after noticing strong sales for Howl's Moving Castle on DVD at Amazon, I suspect that the movie's weak box office in the States might be due to poor promotion from Disney. Were they waiting for an Oscar nomination to give Miyazaki his due?
Not guilty. Sophie's aging might have come on too suddenly, but she wears her years well here—as does this movie.
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