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Howl's Moving Castle (2004) by Hayao Miyazaki (Dir.)
Review by Rogan Marshall
Date: March 7, 2006 / Show Official Info /

US Voice Cast: Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, and Billy Crystal.

And Howl's Moving Castle is, without a doubt, an instant classic, easily one of the most accomplished animated fantasies ever made, on a par with the best work of Disney, Bakshi, and any other past masters you care to drag out for comparison. Miyazaki is on a roll, too; it's rare enough when a filmmaker gives us a career-making masterpiece (Spirited Away), but when he follows it by surpassing himself, it's nothing short of wonderful, in a literal sense.

This is due in part to an increasingly firm grip on the medium. It's hard to believe after Spirited Away that Miyazaki's work could continue to grow more poised and charming, but it has. His style is now so advanced that this movie not only seems effortless; the narrative propels itself so gracefully from shot to shot and scene to scene as it unfolds that the question of style very quickly vanishes altogether, leaving even a jaded viewer like myself free to enjoy a beautiful movie undistracted, like the entranced children who will comprise Howl's most dedicated audience.

It also helps that Miyazaki is adapting a book by Diana Wynne Jones (and you'd think that might be a clue for the folks at Disney, as to Howl's international appeal). Though I haven't read the book, the level of imaginative engagement Miyazaki's screenplay displays, certainly implies the presence of a second, equally overactive imagination, one more gentle, feminine, and Western than the screenwriter's. But despite the baroque wealth of intricate detail in their every aspect, story and script are focused to crystalline clarity; Howl's Moving Castle has the perfect functionality of structure one more often finds in architecture than in film.

Like Rowling's Harry Potter books, Howl's Moving Castle is, essentially, a series of concentric interlocking mysteries within mysteries, all dependent on a captivating treatment of magic, each gradually and enticingly revealed, by a story rich in sudden reversals, and unexpected inversions. In a fairy tale world, where steam-powered cars flit through cobblestone streets, war is waged by giant dirigibles, and magic is commonplace, Sophie, a modest but pretty hatmaker, accidentally offends the notorious Witch of the Waste. The Witch turns Sophie into a little old woman; to regain her youth, Sophie must seek the help of the mysterious and terrifying wizard Howl, who lives in a head-shaped castle that incessantly wanders the wasteland on four giant chicken legs. Unexpectedly, Howl turns out to be one of Miyazaki's trademark wise-and-protective androgynous pretty-boys. But since the witch's curse also prevents Sophie from explaining its mechanics, Sophie is forced to present herself as the little old woman she appears to be, and force herself on Howl as a housekeeper, hoping to find a solution to her problem, if she hangs around long enough. As Sophie becomes an increasingly important part of Howl's home life (which includes a cute apprentice, and a funny fire demon named Calcifer), she also gets entangled in a Machiavellian weave of plots and counterplots amongst Howl, the Witch of the Waste, and the king's witch, Madame Solomon, who runs the king's war, a war Howl secretly fights to end.

The castle's giant chicken legs, of course, recall Baba Yaga's hut, and viewers familiar with fantasy literature will find endless amusing homages here: a voiceless scarecrow with a turnip for a head that befriends Sophie recalls Baum's Oz characters; a magic ring that leads her to Howl by means of magic blue thread, is straight out of George Macdonald; the way Sophie's age fluctuates, in response to her emotional or moral state, echoes the complex transformations undergone by the prose Pinocchio, while Sophie's relationship with Howl is a spun version of that between Beauty and the Beast... but to get way into the ways this movie draws on classic fantasy and fairy tales, would only spoil the fun.

Miyazaki has largely set aside his creepy surreal streak, for the moment; but he's replaced it with an utterly phenomenal sense for how and when to drop a genuine emotional moment into the mix. These are no ham fisted Spielbergian posturings, but careful, gentle tugs on the heart strings, both sudden and momentary, that flit delicately through the narrative like passing humming bees, and are long gone before we even know they've left tears on our faces, adding a subtle but powerful flavor, to what is already a sprawling feast.

I hate to be pushy, but that's how this has to be: don't miss this movie. I know – I don't like being told what to do, either – but I promise, you'll thank me for it, in the end.

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