Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

20 Aug

Good thing you don't have to count calories in a visual feast.

Sumptuous. Luminous. Stunning. It is pointless to attempt any discussion of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” without paying well-deserved homage to the sheer beauty of the film. Lucky for us, there’s more than simple surface value to this multi-layered fairy tale.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” tells the story of Sophie, a young girl who chooses the wrong shortcut to the bakery. She is threatened by two men but is saved by a mysterious (and handsome) stranger. Their time together is short, but she is smitten. She returns safely home, but another mysterious stranger (this time not so handsome) is on the prowl, and Sophie falls victim to a witch’s curse. She is transformed into an old crone, stooped, wrinkled and widened, as she ruefully notes.

Sophie journeys to the Wastes, risking her life to seek the famous (again mysterious)  sorcerer Howl and his fantastic walking home. She finds what she seeks — and a whole lot more — in the magician’s mish-mash of a castle and quickly realizes all is not what it seems. In order to break her curse, Sophie must not only overcome her own shortcomings, she must also help others to unlock their true potential.

This all sounds quite familiar and safe, of course, rather like standard fairy tale fare. What elevates “Howl’s Moving Castle,” however, is its genuine female heroine. Though Howl gets all the glory in the title, Sophie is the true main character and heart of the story. She is a determined, intelligent, resourceful woman, portrayed not as a great beauty but as a kind, gentle spirit. She has spunk, and she makes you laugh, but never through the cheap gags so many children’s movies seem to rely on. Sophie perceives herself as plain — to my recollection she never calls herself “ugly,” only says she “never was beautiful” — but the others in her life see more. A large part of the narrative is concerned with Sophie’s journey and transformation, and this thread provides a touchstone of sorts to help keep viewers emotionally attached to the story.

Which is good, because it gets pretty crazy.

It's a bird, it's a man... it's a man-bird-demon thing. Ooh, and it's sparkly!

“Howl’s Moving Castle” runs nearly two hours and packs a lot of plot into that time. The tale of Howl himself is convoluted and often confusing, and a lot of it — frankly — doesn’t make much sense. But the emotion of his plight comes through easily enough, even if the overarching warring factions storyline threatens to leave viewers behind.  Yes, there’s a story thread that deals with some sort of war — it’s never clear who’s fighting or why — which is utilizing sorcerers for offensive battlefield tactics. Not much time is spent developing this idea and it mainly serves as background filler to the more personal aspects of the film and an odd sort of deus ex machina to propel the plot toward a finale.

Honestly, the story is both a strong point and a weak point in this film. I found myself enjoying the Sophie sequences and the interplay between her and the other inhabitants of Howl’s home, but I was often confused by some of the secondary story elements. It’s a whole lot of plot, and it frequently runs off and leaves you trying to catch up. I don’t mind this so much. I’m perfectly fine with some abstraction and muddled story if the end result is worth it, and to me it is.

For “Howl’s Moving Castle” is one of those rare animated features that can capture the imagination of both its youngest and oldest viewers. The old-fashioned art style serves as a vivid reminder of what we’re losing with the full embrace of CGI animation. The film’s brilliant colors, expansive landscapes, attention to detail and visual luxury are simply breathtaking. It’s an astonishing achievement. Miyazaki has crafted a graceful film, one that doesn’t pander with crude jokes or a simplistic story. It has a strong female lead character,  shows clear consequences resulting from bad decisions and nudges audiences with some gentle morals without feeling preachy or sacrificing any of its immense charm. I’ll forgive some murky plot points. Three stars out of four.

Howl’s Moving Castle: Rated PG. Starring the voice talent of (American release only): Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Emily Mortimer, Josh Hutcherson and Billy Crystal. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Written by Hayao Miyazaki from the novel by Diana Wynne Jones. Cinematography by Atsushi Okui. Original music by Joe Hisaishi.

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