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Howl's Moving Castle|
voice cast: Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Emily Mortimer, and Billy Crystal
writer and director: Hayao Miyazaki
115 minutes (U) 2004
widescreen ratio 16:9
Optimum Asia DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Steven Hampton
Conventional wisdom tells us (even if we don't want a sermon) that Hollywood and its
satellite filmmaking regions just don't make 'nice' family-rated movies nowadays. Except,
of course, for the unqualified syrupy nonsense churned out by Disney. Quantity and
quality rarely come to agreeable terms for 'U' rated films. Emblazoned with high praise
("Prepare to be dazzled... One of the finest animated films in years" - Total
Film; "Extraordinary imagination... stunning imagination." - Jonathan Ross
on TV's Film 2005) we might anticipate this latest DVD release in the Studio Ghibli
collection to be a masterpiece of Japanese cinema but, alas, I fear something got lost
in translation. I expect that I'm in a small minority, here, but I found much of this
animated adaptation (aka: Hauru no ugoku shiro) of Diana Wynne Jones' fantasy
novel to be horribly twee. But then I didn't like such 'delights' as The Snowman
(1982), and the trailer for Miyazaki's earlier Spirited Away (2001) did not fill
me with an urgent need to see it, either.
Forced to quit her quiet life as a small town hat-maker, when she's magically turned
into an old crone, young Sophie embarks on an odyssey, as an uninvited resident of a
mechanical walking castle, to the distant royal palace, seeking help - not for herself,
but for troubled outcast wizard Howl. Meanwhile, the spectre of sorcery-powered conflict
looms threateningly over the horizon. That's the main plot, such as it is. What's supposed
to maintain our interest here, is the bunch of quirky supporting characters (including
a hop-along scarecrow, a fire-demon shackled to a hearth, a wise little hound, and the
Wicked Witch of the Waste) and a series of magic-related incidents (transformations,
monstrous attackers, the schema of occultism) but, unfortunately, these elements fail
to gather sufficient momentum to carry the viewer along, through regrettably murky story-logic,
for the decrepit castle's journey.
Forthright-yet-honest heroine Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) is simply too embarrassingly
'angelic' for any fantasy realm, let alone one with any kind of real-world relevance.
She's a cringe-inducing mix of sympathy and tolerance, eternally grateful and unswervingly
humble in the face of shadows upon her flawed spiritual existence, even one cursed by acutely
diabolical misfortune. She readily succumbs to 'endearing' stereotypes, from youthful
busy-bee to grumpy geriatric, and it's nigh impossible to acquire even a vague emotional
attachment to a bland cypher who never gets slightly miffed, let alone thoroughly pissed-off,
at tragedy or adversity. Yes, Sophie essays admirable courage, and yet she requires
constant prompting to choose her own path. Whether in 'young spinster' or 'super-granny'
mode, Sophie has one hand stuck in the generic-archetype cookie jar, while she's standing
on the shoulders of feminist giantesses.
Howl's Moving Castle is less narrative fiction (its fuzzy exposition leaves too
much unexplained) and more a batch of whimsically arresting scenes. The actual animation
benefits from amusing designs and charming motifs, but its painterly aspects (gothic
surrealism notwithstanding) take precedence over motion, and so it frequently grinds
to a picturesque halt, much like the badly preserved castle of the title. And another
thing... Several, if not many, of the 'ideas' presented here (like the dial-up doorway
that opens to diverse locales) are 'demonstrated' once too often, to irritating effect.
Well, even accepting that this film is really intended for the preteen audience, showing
off such minor details repeatedly, while failing to properly deliver a coherent backstory
risks insulting viewers' intelligence.
The DVD has Dolby digital sound in English or Japanese (with English subtitles), and
sports alternative-angle storyboards as the principal extra feature. A second disc boasts
interviews with authoress Jones, and Pixar's Peter Docter, an item on Miyazaki's visit
to Pixar, an explanatory featurette on CGI, and a package of TV spots and anime trailers.