Howl’s Moving Castle

Jun 22, 2005 at 12:00 am

The genius of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s premier animated filmmaker, is his absolute mastery of dislocation. The landscapes in his films burst with jaw-dropping beauty and sumptuous visual spectacle. Though the stories may meander a bit, one cannot help but be swept up by his lush and otherworldly fantasies. The nearly perfect Spirited Away (2002) represents the high-water mark in Miyazaki’s already impressive career. Imaginative, innocent and always delightful, it was a work of creative genius boasting loving attention to the smallest detail.

The problem with establishing the high-water mark, however, is the inevitable comparisons that follow. Although his latest film, Howl’s Moving Castle, features astonishing imagery, it’s a less complete package than Spirited Away or its predecessor, Princess Mononoke.

Based on English writer Diana Wynne Jones’ novel, the story centers on Sophie (dubbed by Emily Mortimer), a young girl who has been transformed into a 90-year-old woman (Jean Simmons) by the Witch of the Wastes (Lauren Bacall). Desperate to undo the curse, she seeks out the mysterious Howl (Christian Bale), who lives in a magically mobile castle powered by a fire demon (Billy Crystal). Howl has his own magical affliction, which he hides, and together he and Sophie struggle to cure themselves while falling in love.

Throw into the mix a magical scarecrow, a comically mustachioed dog, a war-torn landscape overrun with biomechanical weapons and innumerable subplots, and you end up with a convoluted story that makes very little sense. Buried somewhere beneath a narrative that lacks urgency or force is a fitfully affecting tale of love, longing and identity.

By remaining faithful to the source novel’s confusing contrivances, the director sacrifices his trademark sense of extravagant whimsy in favor of arbitrary details and contradictory behavior. For instance, Howl makes forceful declarations against the madness of war, vowing to stay out of the conflict, only to sneak out each night to inexplicably participate in its battles. Say what you will about Spirited Away’s more fantastical elements, the film maintained an internal logic that this film lacks.

Like Katsuhiro Otomo’s exhausting Steamboy, this film indulges in the Japanese fascination with Victorian England. But the period’s sexually repressed culture and industrial fervor are all-too-familiar to Western audiences, and so the film never achieves the otherworldly mystique of Miyazaki’s other features.

The movie’s greatest joys, however, come from experiencing its dazzling visuals. To call the film a feast for the eyes would be an understatement. In a beautiful marriage of hand-painted animation and computer-generated imagery, Miyazaki transcends the limitations of both and delivers moments of poetic beauty and mystery. His uncanny visual sense casts a spell that the story never equals, transporting us to a place that is both stirring to the spirit and the eye.

The vocal cast is effective but not particularly inspiring. Only Billy Crystal stands out. His borscht-belt shtick, surprisingly restrained, provides some decent laughs and never overstays its welcome.

In the end, Howl’s Moving Castle still manages to convey Miyazaki’s charming sense of heroism and female empowerment along with a healthy disdain for war. However, with a running time of more than two hours and complicated plot, it’s hard to imagine the film appealing to younger audiences. For the rest of us, it offers enough visual delights to overcome its many flaws. — 

Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].