Howl’s Moving Castle
Hayao Miyazaki has earned his genius stripes with My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. Perhaps his most famous work in the US is the everyone-likes-it-but-me Princess Mononoke, which earned tremendous critical acclaim while I spent half the movie confused and half of it bored. I went into Howl’s Moving Castle with mixed feelings, wondering if this was going to be another of those movies everyone raves about while I slink off muttering “It wasn’t THAT good.” By the end of it, I’d seen the sweetest movie I’ve ever seen and become a fan. Howl’s Moving Castle transcends the clichés and limitations of anime as a genre and becomes a good-hearted fairytale that just-so-happens to be done in the anime art style.
Howl-deep-voiced by Christian Bale-rides around in an elaborate moving castle, as the title indicates. The castle itself is a wonderful work of art, a breathtaking contraption with a personality all its own, which you’d think would be difficult with gun turrets for eyes, but somehow they give it a life of its own. Naturally, guys who ride around in spooky castles acquire reputations, and all the girls of town squeal about him taking pretty girl’s hearts and devouring them, among other dark deeds. Plain-girl Sophie doesn’t have to worry about that, though even she is frightened when Howl pops up and escorts her around town. Despite his reputation the “evil wizard” proves to be a perfect gentleman, even protecting her from dark, blobby minions of evil in spiffy straw hats.
Sophie barely has time to think “What a nice…” when the gargantuan Witch of the Waste sweeps into her hat shop and puts a curse on our young heroine and the best part about it, croons the Witch, is it’s one of those curses you can’t talk about. The curse turns her into a little old lady, and though Sophie’s lost none of her spirit, the only thing she can do is find Howl and his castle, since she can’t hang around the family as a granny. Howl takes her in and he and his motley band of castle dwellers deal with war, witches, magic, and scariest of all, love.
Trying to pick favorite parts out of movies this good is an impossibility. The art was fantastic, with breathtaking vistas and a pastoral-country meets World War I Britian look to the towns and people, but even that doesn’t do it justice. The flying machines and airplanes are flights of fancy from when flying was fun and mysterious, the steam-powered cars and trains are whimsical might-have-beens from an era when transportation was exciting and rare, not something you did to get to work. The characters were just wonderful to look at, weird and strange and, yet, human at the same time, with the exception of Granny Sophie, who was usually alright, but occasionally brought back horrible memories of those terrible Bakshi Hobbit/Lord of the Rings movies.
As a hardcore member of the subs > dubs fraternity, I was pleasantly surprised by the voice acting. Everyone was really, really well-cast, instead of being a “We got David Duchovny and by god, he’s going to voice somebody” fest, even if Christian Bale’s deep voice seemed a little out of place on the slim, young Howl. It grew on me. Sophie’s two voice actors each did outstanding work sounding like each other (since one had to play Old Sophie and one had to play Young Sophie, a really tremendous demand if you think about it) and creating a memorable character. Billy Crystal voiced house-demon Calcifer in a fun way, without going into Robin Williams over-the-top territory, and I’d really like to see him doing more voice work.
Yea, other critics don’t like it as much and I think I know why. Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t an epic work, it’s more like a fairy tale, and if you’re looking for onion-like layers of depth and meaning and stuff to make you sound important, it’s just not there, because this isn’t an epic kind of movie. It’s a very kind-hearted tale set in a whimsical world of fantasy and make believe and if you can drop ego and pretension let yourself be a kid again, it’s a fantastic movie with great characters, outstanding writing, and a beautiful art style.