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With Disney and Pixar firmly entrenched on the side of CGI for their animated efforts, it looks like Japan and the FOX Network are the last bastions of hand drawn animation. Perhaps the most revered name from this old school is Hayao Miyazaki, best known in the US for “Princess Mononoke” and the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away”. Miyazaki’s latest effort is “Howl’s Moving Castle”, and like his other films, there is an astonishing level of detail to behold, but unfortunately the film is lacking elsewhere.
The first image we see is of the titular castle, a clanking, lumbering behemoth that looks more like a giant garage sale propelled by metal chicken legs than your typical fairy tale castle. It is a wondrous contraption, complete with interior spaces that can be changed at will, a magic door that can open to any location, and a wisecracking fire demon named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal) that provides the power to run the castle. The lord of the castle is a young, vain and narcissistic wizard named Howl (voiced by Christian Bale, “The Machinist”), who is fleeing an evil witch known as the Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall).
One day while strolling through town, Howl rescues young Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer, “The 51st State”) from the improper advances of some lecherous soldiers. It turns out Howl himself is being pursued by the minions of the evil Witch Of The Waste at that very moment, forcing them to flee into the air. Later, Sophie’s life gets more complicated when the Witch of the Waste, seeing her as a rival for the affections of the dashing Howl, casts a spell that instantly changes Sophie into a 90-year old crone (now voiced by Jean Simmons). Determined to break the curse, Sophie takes off into the Wastes in search of the elusive Howl.
“Howl’s Moving Castle” is the first time since 1989’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service” that Miyazaki has directed material he didn’t write himself. Adapted from a children’s story of the same name by British author Diana Wynne Jones, it is apparent that something was lost in the translation from book to movie. The visuals and content place the story somewhere between the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, but due to the rather disparate thematic worlds that collide within “Howl”, the story ends up being too unfocused.
“Howl’s Moving Castle” is also too inconsistent, and the characters change form with nearly the same frequency as the surroundings. While this is cool at first, it eventually serves to dilute the emotional impact of the story. By the 5th time that Sophie changes from old to young and back again, the gravity of her predicament becomes questionable. Also, it doesn’t help that Sophie’s constant age transitions don’t seem to be following any consistent rules. Oftentimes it feels like we’ve entered into the middle of a much larger story, and not being familiar with the source material, I can’t say if the blame lies with the original presentation or with Miyazaki’s adaptation.
The other area that disappoints is the voice acting. It’s not that the actors do a bad job, because they don’t, but rather they don’t seem to be performing with very much gusto. Christian Bale (“Batman Begins”) is particularly disappointing as the titular Howl. Bale’s soothing baritone would seem to be a natural fit for the character, but the actor’s delivery is too droll and virtually devoid of emotion. Bacall and Mortimer both do serviceable work, but neither makes their characters really stand out. Billy Crystal does quite well as the fast talking Calcifer by virtue of not being Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy, and Jean Simmons stands out as old Sophie, a role that she imbues with a humorous ‘been there, done that’ quality that befits her character’s crusty old appearance.
Much of the film’s last third feels like it’s treading water, as if Miyazaki seems unsure of how to handle the film’s underlying anti-war message. What we end up with is something non-committal, as Miyazaki gets caught tap dancing around the issue. Soon, Miyazaki realizes that he had spent too much time spinning his wheels and tries to tie up a myriad of loose ends within the last 5 minutes, resulting in what seems to be a meandering journey that abruptly ends with a fairly unsatisfying conclusion.
Still, despite all its flaws, there are more than enough visual curiosities in “Howl’s Moving Castle” to keep the viewer engaged, or at least distract the audience from the lackluster storyline.
(Note: The above review is based on the English dubbed version.)
Hayao Miyazaki (director) / Hayao Miyazaki (screenplay), Diana Wynne Jones (novel)
CAST: Chieko Baisho …. SofÃ®
Takuya Kimura …. Hauru
Akihiro Miwa …. Arechi no Majo
Tatsuya Gashuin …. KarushifÃ¢