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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

RATING: 6/10
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.
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