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Howl's Moving Castle
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by Mel Valentin

"A modest, flawed effort from a master filmmaker."
4 stars

Based on the novel for young adults by Diana Wynne Jones, "Howl’s Moving Castle," scripted and directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli, may signal a decline in Miyazaki’s storytelling skills or simply Miyazaki’s unwillingness to take narrative or visual risks with material that closely tracks his previous work, e.g., "Castle in the Sky" (a/k/a "Laputa: Castle in the Sky") and "Kiki’s Delivery Service." Viewers familiar with these films will notice multiple similarities in terms of setting, character design, and themes (i.e., personal growth through hardship, redemption or reconciliation through love, female empowerment, anti-militarism, etc.), as well as Miyazaki’s trademark preoccupations with flight and impossible flying machines (i.e., impossible by the “ordinary” laws of physics and aerodynamics).

Like Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle is set in an imaginary Europe, an industrialized or industrializing pre-World War I Europe. Here, militarism and nationalism are the norm, as crowds gather to cheer a military procession through the town square (small airships cross the skies. The grim realities of mechanized war are still in Europe’s future. The thundering, bomb-carrying airships, small or massive, are clearly inspired by the airships Miyazaki created for Castle in the Sky. Where Castle in the Sky mixed European history, science fiction, and action/adventure into credible steampunk (machines in this world are uniformly powered by steam), Howl’s Moving Castle adds fantasy elements, e.g., wizards and witches (benevolent, wicked, or ambiguous), anthropomorphized animate and animated objects (some for comic relief), literalized metaphors (i.e., hearts here can be “stolen” from their owners), and, of course, Howl’s moving castle, an enormous, enchanted contraption that resembles a fish with wings, moves on (four) chicken feet. The castle's front door also opens onto four, different locations (the door, of course, will play a key part late in the film).

As Howl’s Moving Castle opens, Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer as a young adult and by Jean Simmons as an old woman), a young woman who works in a hat shop, finds herself saved by the handsome, if incredibly vain, Howl (Christian Bale), from the clutches of two overeager soldiers. Howl, it seems, is also fleeing a pursuer. From what becomes immediately apparent: blob men employed by the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), an oversized witch with an appetite for younger wizards. The Witch, jealous of Sophie’s encounter with Howl, casts a spell on her. Sophie ages from young to old in a matter of seconds, losing a lifetime of possibility in the process. The spell also precludes Sophie from telling anyone about the curse. Realizing that the curse cannot be undone without magical help, Sophie leaves her town, friends, and family behind, and begins both her inner journey (from self-doubt to self-confidence and maturity) and her outer journey (a counter-spell to break the curse).

Through the intervention of a new friend, Sophie enters into Howl’s service as Howl’s new housekeeper. The already large cast of characters gets larger with the addition of Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a wise cracking, petulant fire demon who operates Howl’s moving castle; Markl (Josh Hutcherson), Howl’s adolescent apprentice; and Howl himself, who, unable to look past surface appearances, doesn’t recognize Sophie in her new guise. Sophie, however, adds domestic stability to Howl’s castle. The Witch of the Waste is still in pursuit, but more importantly, the king has requested Howl’s service in a war against a neighboring country. Howl, bound by law and custom (and suffering from his own curse), can’t refuse the king’s request. Despite being vain, self-centered, and callous, Howl opposes the war, even as his opposition presents itself as a transformation into something less-than-human.

It’s in developing Sophie and Howl's relationship, however, that Miyazaki stumbles and stumbles badly. Miyazaki’s heroes and heroines are typically younger, and their relationships with the opposite sex tend toward platonic friendship not romance. In Castle in the Sky, the relationship between the two central characters is more platonic than romantic, due to their young age (although it’s strongly suggested that their relationship will become romantic as they grow older). Here, Miyazaki’s unsophisticated, simplistic approach to romantic relationships almost derails Howl’s Moving Castle. Castle in the Sky emphasized action/adventure over romance. It’s difficult to accept Sophie’s growing desire for Howl or Howl’s reciprocating that desire. Miyazaki’s script makes Howl’s change less than credible (i.e., gradations in his behavior are missing). The continuing emphasis on Sophie and Howl’s underdeveloped relationship also drags the second hour down, at least until the inevitable collision between Howl, Sophie, and their allies on one side and the film’s (mostly) abstract villains on the other turns Howl’s Moving Castle into an action/adventure film. Clearly, Miyazaki could have benefited from a stronger, more present villain (he switches villains halfway through the film, and leaves the second villain woefully undeveloped).

Despite a shaky, overlong second half and familiar themes and visual motifs, Miyazaki’s trademark attention to visual style, from the backgrounds to the color design, is everywhere evident in "Howl’s Moving Castle." For a film that attempts to appeal across demographics (e.g., children and their parents, adult anime fans), Miyazaki does take a substantial risk in depicting the effects of war. The once wistful, uplifting scenes of a perfect ordered world (as seen from the sky) inevitably give way to firebombed cities to a battleship limping into a seaside dock, followed by a squadron of fighters that sends civilians scurrying for safety. In a brief scene, Miyazaki displays a mocking distrust of hereditary rulers. The imaginary king of this imaginary kingdom is nothing more than an overgrown boy, treating war like a game with toy soldiers and airplanes. He seems limited in his ability to comprehend the death and destruction (on his own people) that follow as a direct result of his actions. Then too, Miyazaki shows us the real power behind the throne, an unelected advisor acting in service of a "righteous" cause.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12248&reviewer=402
originally posted: 06/17/05 23:16:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2005 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sydney Film Festival For more in the 2005 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/03/20 Christy Cahill Whimsical, beautiful animation, lovable characters, can't get any better than this! 5 stars
1/18/16 Alexis H Coming of age, discovering love, finding your place in the world 5 stars
11/24/13 Vanessa C. Great movie. 5 stars
11/04/09 Billy no comment messesary 1 stars
10/25/09 Faggot84 Lecturing or singing about short vowels is unlikely to prevent the errors children often ma 5 stars
10/25/09 BadGirl60 Leader-solicited responses from whomever with respect to decisions to be made can become ro 3 stars
10/25/09 Barbara84 The particular characteristics of this ideal observer can vary from an omniscient observer, 5 stars
10/25/09 His_wife98 Rothbard Copyright © 2005 Ludwig von Mises Institute, fifth edition All rights reserved. , 2 stars
10/25/09 No_limits50 Do you still have a two-part edition of the show or is this limited just to summer time? , 3 stars
10/24/09 Kelvin21 American women do not do this, whereas women here seem obligated by law to do so. , <a href 4 stars
10/24/09 Coder18 As a result, modular green roof technologies are rapidly gaining popularity. , <a href="h 2 stars
10/23/09 John19 An analogy might be sought in the working of a large manufacturing plant in a factory. , 5 stars
10/23/09 Alex23 But you are lost in minutiae, barry. , 5 stars
10/22/09 Loy68 If you do have a choice of surgeon or hospital, ask the surgeon the following questions: Wh 5 stars
10/22/09 Red20 Some municipalities may have local laws that are stricter then the state law. , 5 stars
10/22/09 Arnold56 Has anyone ever heard of standards being raised because of their presence or contribution? 5 stars
9/21/09 myexporica.com More on the pancake project: a wide spectrum of humanity, from hillbillies to eggheads, is 5 stars
5/08/09 Stephen Beautiful art great movie! 5 stars
3/02/09 brian World's greatest anime artist strikes again 4 stars
7/03/08 Steve Great movie, but i'm sure the books is better like most book the movie films. 5 stars
1/19/08 eleni looooove it 5 stars
3/27/07 fools&#9835;gold As fun as an ancient Greek story about a hero/god, I rcmmnd watchin both Jap + Eng versions 5 stars
11/01/06 Kiwi I don't normally like anime,but it was really good. Howl is cute! 4 stars
4/11/06 Alex ridiculizando peliculas estadounidenses 5 stars
4/04/06 Annie G Having never read the book, I felt left out while watching this movie ... but, it's ok. 4 stars
3/27/06 Brian Meyer This film is an oasis in the desert known as "modern cinema" 5 stars
3/24/06 Eileen Sheehan Great!! I love anime!1 5 stars
3/14/06 Shannon Robles i think this is the best animated film i have seen in a long time! 5 stars
3/11/06 the laughing man Another Myazaki Masterpiece. 5 stars
3/02/06 Tiffany Faye Hawthorne Overlong, waxing incoherent, sometimes ugly. A merciful average. 3 stars
1/25/06 Sean Hartlieb An anime of non -stop imagination directly from Myazaki's mind. 5 stars
11/02/05 Treavor Hammons I was dragged into this wonderful worl dof magic and imgination as soon as the flim began. 5 stars
10/25/05 Green Gremlin Another great anime from Miyazaki 5 stars
10/18/05 Mee Great movie, but the ending's absolute crap. 3 stars
10/03/05 elendil Plot lacks coherency. And I'm usually a fan of Miyazaki. 2 stars
9/15/05 Jonathon Holmes not as good as "Spirited Away", but entertaning nonetheless 4 stars
8/22/05 Sophia It is now my favorite movie by far. 5 stars
8/16/05 Agent Sands Great Miyazaki fun. Beautiful, funny, and engrossing. 5 stars
8/12/05 Ben Quinn Miyazaki focused a bit too much on the art in this one. I got lost a few times... 4 stars
8/09/05 Grace A little magic is passed to the viewer, as far as I could tell 5 stars
8/08/05 unknown It so totally rocks!!!!!!! Howl is HOT!!!!!!! 5 stars
7/27/05 Lisa Amazing, Breathtaking, and A Joy to Watch 5 stars
7/20/05 Rachyl This movie was increadable! A must see! 5 stars
7/18/05 Kayla I love this movie so much please tell me its coming out really soon 5 stars
7/18/05 Brenda Such a great movie, when is it coming out on DVD!! 5 stars
7/14/05 jcjs lovely, clever, smart, beautiful, engaging, moving 5 stars
7/11/05 Kankasaur And I thought the Rocky Horror castle was clever! 4 stars
7/07/05 Kitty Awsome movie! Wanted to see it again and again 5 stars
6/29/05 YS Pure pleasure for your soul 5 stars
6/27/05 Michael Enchanting, rich, beautiful. Wonderful movie, entertaining and extraordinary. 5 stars
6/21/05 Gini Despite the efforts of my friends, I'm no anime fan. But I'll own this one on DVD. Great! 5 stars
6/20/05 Agent Sands Just a masterpiece. A perfect example of an enjoyable movie. Highly creative, great for all 5 stars
6/17/05 Titus Simply wonderful. The best kind of movie: charming and hauntingly beautiful. 5 stars
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  10-Jun-2005 (PG)
  DVD: 07-Mar-2006



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