Jean Simmons as Grandma Sophie
Christian Bale as Howl
Lauren Bacall as Witch of the Waste
Blythe Danner as Madame Suliman
Emily Mortimer as Young Sophie
Josh Hutcherson as Markl
Billy Crystal as Calcifer
Though somewhat dark, Miyazaki produces another charming and inventive fairy tale every bit as good as his past offerings.
A young seamstress named Sophie has been turned into an old woman by a jealous witch, forcing Sophie to seek out the help of a handsome young wizard named Howl (voiced by Christian Bale) who lives on a bizarre castle that walks around on chicken legs. So begins an adventure in a world torn apart by war.
As one of Japan’s most respected producers of animated films, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli return to these shores after the overwhelming success of their Oscar-winning Spirited Away. This time, they’re not creating an original idea from scratch, as they adapt a novel by British fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, a beautiful story in a fantastical world not too far removed from our own that gives Miyazaki plenty of room to do what he does best in visualizing strange characters and situations.
Like with many of Miyazaki’s previous films, a young girl is the heroine of the story, although in this case, Sophie spends much of her time as an old woman after being aged by a vengeful witch. As she tries to find a cure, she comes into contact with a bizarre group of characters including a bouncing smiling scarecrow and Howl himself, a rather vain young wizard who is plagued with a curse that turns him into a large crow-like monster, when he’s forced to use his powers in battle. Eventually, even the witch that caused Sophie’s problems joins the odd group after she gets her own comeuppance, being turned into a massive pile of skin by Madame Suliman, the king’s head sorceress, as voiced by Blythe Danner. They all travel around in the moving castle of the title, which bears more than a little homage to the hut of Baba Yaga, powered by a cantankerous fire demon suffering his own enigmatic curse.
Despite the outside source material, much of the Miyazaki formula remains intact in Howl’s Moving Castle, including the cuteness factor that his fans love. Still, the solid fantasy base of the story takes on eerie reality with there being a very real war being fought between the witches and wizards of this land, a setting that allows Miyazaki to make a subtle commentary on war. Unlike Otomo’s recent Steamboy, the message is far more hidden among the fantasy elements, but they still make this Miyazaki’s darkest work to date, and parts of it may be too scary for the youngest of children.
Of course, it goes without saying that the animation is great. Miyazaki has always had the ability at taking you to other worlds and quickly making you forget that you’re watching a “cartoon.” In some ways, the story is more complex than Miyazaki’s norm, and not nearly as concise, but he finds ways of simplifying it so that even a child can understand what is going on. Then again, it also starts to get a bit corny towards the end.
The English dubbing for Howl’s Moving Castle was overseen by PIxar Studios with Pete Docter (Monsters Inc.) directing and John Lasseter (Toy Story) acting as executive producer. Having these American animation masters helping makes for a noticeable difference from the last few Miyazaki translations, as they’re able to bring a lot of life to these characters without losing what makes Miyazaki’s work so special and unique.
While subtitles are still preferred by Anime connoisseurs, the translation works well mainly due to the delivery by the fine cast they brought together. Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons are both excellent, sharing duties as Sophie, as she fluidly transforms from young to old and back again. (After awhile, you become unaware of the fact that she’s changed.) Lauren Bacall is also great as the Witch of the Waste who puts the curse on Sophie, while Bale does not have to stretch much to play Howl.
The one exception, and it’s a big one, is Billy Crystal, who chews up the scenery with a hammy over-the top performance as Calcifer, the fire demon who powers Howl’s castle. Sure, it’s supposed to be a comedic role, but he lays the schtick on so think and it’s so obvious that it’s him that it really takes you out of the movie at times. That kind of performance might work well when Crystal is playing the lead like he did in Monsters Inc., but it makes it hard to enjoy this movie without some reservations.
The Bottom Line:
That aside, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have done it again, creating another imaginative film that should be appreciated by anyone who has enjoyed their vast library of animated classics.
Howl’s Moving Castle opens in select cities on Friday.