|Howl's Moving Castle (2005)
Starring: voices of Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
“Howl’s Moving Castle,” the latest animated film from Japanese writer and director Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”), comes close to being another masterpiece, but ultimately falls a little short of that distinction. Based on a novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, “Howl’s Moving Castle” tells the story of an 18 year-old girl named Sophie who is transformed into an old woman by a witch. Lost as to what to do with herself, Sophie sets off from her home and finds herself in the mobile castle of the notorious wizard Howl.
Although somewhat derivative of his past work, “Howl’s Moving Castle” represents why so many children and adults enjoy Miyazaki’s work. Much like his past film “Castle in the Sky,” this time the director uses the back drop of a war-ravaged and bygone (but technologically advanced) Europe to tell a love-story, but at the same time fills his world with playful characters that children can appreciate. Most notable of these is the fire demon Calcifier, who despite what he is, is drawn as a flame with a cheerful visage. Also memorable is Turnip, a magical scarecrow (with a turnip-shaped head) that follows Sophie around wordlessly.
In true Miyazaki form, he takes these simple figures and gives them as much emotional complexity as even the main characters in the film. This comes in stark contrast to similar characters in American animated films that serve only as tired comic relief, and become more of a nuisance or a distraction from the story. Even the antagonist of “Howl,” the Witch of the Waste, has much more depth than one can label simply as “evil” or the “villain,” something all too characteristic in the usual animated film. It is Miyazaki’s brilliance as a director that can make the audience care just as much about these secondary characters as the others in the film.
As is always with Miyazaki, the animation in “Howl” is gorgeous. The characters and landscapes in this movie cannot be found anywhere else except a Miyazaki film. The use of color, shape, and texture in the animation is as distinctive as those used by many a classical artist. Every scene, with its grandeur and subtlety, is a feast for the eyes to devour.
Although “Howl’s Moving Castle” is classic Miyazaki, it still falls short of the mastery of his two previous films, “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away.” These two films still stand as the pinnacle of the director’s talents. For all there is to enjoy in “Howl,” the story seems to be slightly fragmented. There is more than one moment that leaves you scratching your head. There are also parts of the film that seem a bit rushed, such as the love story between Howl and Sophie.
But as studios seem more and more apt to churn out digitally animated films one after the other, it is refreshing to know that a master of traditional animation is still working near the top of his game. Hayao Miyazaki is a true artist of cel animation and it is hard to imagine him doing anything else. “Howl’s Moving Castle” may not be Miyazaki’s best work, but anything he gives us is something to be cherished and enjoyed.