Friday, July 6, 2012

Howl's Moving Castle Anime Movie Review

Howl's Moving Castle
Hauru no Ugoku Shiro
Buena Vista Home Entertainment (Disney)
Movie - 119 mins. - 2 discs
$29.99 (2006)
ISBN 786936296662
Japanese/English Audio - English Subtitles
Director - Hayao Miyazaki
Studio - Studio Ghibli

Synopsis: Sophie works in her mother's hat shop and is a responsible, level-headed young lady.  A war is brewing between her country and a neighboring state with soldiers being stationed in her town where several protests have been happening.  She is stopped on her way home by a pair of rude soldiers and deftly rescued from the situation by a dashing young man who appears to have magical powers.  He is being pursued by strange, globular phantoms, but manages to elude them and deliver Sophie to safety. 
Sophie encounters Howl and they fly above the rooftops
to evade his pursuers
He is the renowned sorcerer Howl who is wanted by the wicked Witch of the Waste.  Howl's home is an enchanted castle which walks about on two legs and is magically obscured from detection.  Back at the hat shop Sophie is visited by a rude old woman who inquires on Howl's whereabouts.  Sophie gives the old woman's attitude right back to her, but is shocked to discover the old woman is the fearsome Witch of the Waste.  The Witch curses Sophie by transforming her into an old woman! 
Sophie gets a rude visit from the nasty Witch of the Waste
Now Sophie is trapped in an aging body, unrecognizable to any of her loved ones, and unable to tell anyone of her condition.  She sets off on a journey to find a cure and manages to gain entrance to Howl's moving castle. The inhabitants of the castle are Markl, a young boy who is apprentice to Howl, and Calcifer, a fire demon under a spell to obey Howl and the power source for the moving castle.
Sophie discovers the result of the horrible curse the
Witch puts on her!
The door to Howl's castle is magic and opens upon several different physical locations - typically wizards' storefronts where Howl poses as other wizards plying their trade.  Howl is out while Sophie gains entrance to the castle and when he returns she quickly explains she is the new cleaning lady.  Howl accepts her and she starts cleaning the castle - which is a daunting mess as no one has cleaned it ever before!
Sophie sets out to find a cure for her curse and happens upon Howl's
 Moving Castle (doesn't look like any castle I've ever seen)
Each of Howl's wizard alter-egos is summoned by the king to participate in the war, but Howl is not interested.  He tries to avoid participating yet cannot when he learns other wizards are transforming into giant creatures and destroying towns.  Now he is being hunted by the Madam Suliman, the king's royal mage, along with the Witch of the Waste.  In order to protect himself and those he cares about he repeatedly transforms into a powerful, bird-like creature, but each transformation brings him closer to losing his humanity.  Can Sophie help protect Howl, break her own curse, and keep her wondrously strange new family together? 
We meet Calcifer, a fire demon who is cursed to
serve Howl as the power source for the castle
Pros: Beautiful animation - hand drawn figures in front of lush/complex backgrounds with unobtrusive computer-aided elements, typical Miyazaki themes - anti-war and discovering inner strength through external struggles, great voice-acting for young/old Sophie, ending neatly wraps up the plot threads, very nice musical score, nominated for Best Animated Feature at 2006 Academy Awards 
Sophie sets to work cleaning the filthy castle
Cons: Film plot and character portrayals are drastically different than the original novel by Diana Wynne Jones, dub actor choices were questionable for Calcifer (Billy Crystal - too silly) and Howl (Christian Bale - too gruff), plot jumps around quite a bit and the reason for the war wasn't readily apparent (maybe I'm just dense, but after like ten viewings I still don't know why the war is happening)
Howl transforms into a giant bird-like creature to try and
oppose the other wizards involved in the war
Mike Tells It Straight: Hayao Miyazaki followed up his critically-acclaimed film Spirited Away with this film based on the novel Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.  His films are usually original creations written and directed by him (with the exception of Kiki's Delivery Service which was based on a short novel), but he was a great fan of the book and wanted to create a film from it. 
Sophie helps Howl to rest after a traumatizing experience
For those fans of the original novel this film is a big departure as it is not a direct representation of the book.  The Witch of the Waste was a beautiful ex-lover of Howl's and is instead an overweight aging madame.  Michael the teenage apprentice who was in love with Sophie's sister is instead Markl the young boy.  Howl was an irresponsible lothario and is instead a gruff anti-war hero. 
The castle and its inhabitants take a break from walking
Obviously Miyazaki used the book as a loose basis for the story he wanted to tell with the characters in order to reiterate recurring themes from past works - anti-war, a perpetual battle between technology and the natural (magical) world, and discovering inner strength through difficult trials.  Despite the change to the characters I think Miyazaki really made them stand for something. 
Heen, Markl and Turnip Head
Instead of a vapid womanizer we get a socially-conscious Howl willing to sacrifice his humanity in order to stop senseless violence.  Sophie discovers adventure and a chance at love after a debilitating curse alters her life.  I like the underlying theme of personal freedom portrayed in this film, particularly Howl's lifestyle and desire to stay unfettered of responsibilities.  His house is always on the move, he assumes false identities, and spreads unsavory rumors to keep himself at a comfortable distance from others.

Sophie holds a flaming heart in her hands
The spectacular visuals alone are worth viewing and the story is interesting if not a bit scattered.  Fans of Miyazaki and animation in general will really enjoy this film.  It's not the best Miyazaki has done, but in the upper strata for sure.  I would recommend seeing the film and then reading the book to minimize any potential disappointment with the film.  Absolutely see this and it actually improves a bit on repeat viewings.

TO BUY and Recommendations: