With HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, Hayao Miyazaki takes a popular British children's book by Dianne Wyanna Jones and transforms it into yet another breathtakingly gorgeous and sumptuously animated work of art. Indeed, from the opening shot where we see the title structure--a bizarre amalgam of iron, steam, and unexpected surprises--loom ominously out of the mist, audiences will find themselves on a roller coaster of visual delight and imagination.
The story, set in a 19th century British countryside, involves a young woman named Sophie who is literally swept off her feet by the handsome yet enigmatic wizard, Howl--despite warnings from her fellow friends that this "lady-killer" of a magician eats the hearts of young girls alike. Soon after, Sophie finds herself cursed by the jealous Witch of the Waste--where she is transformed into a ninety-year-old crone. Forced to flee from her hometown, "Grandma" Sophie (who occasionally reverts from old to young as the film progresses) takes refuge in Howl's fortress, where she makes a pact with a wisecracking fireball known as Calcifer in order to break his own curse, and likewise, her own.
The plot gets a little bit more complicated from here on out, with various side-stories that involve a war, a stern queen who wants Howl to serve in her name, and--wouldn't you know--Howl conquering his inner demons of despair and selfishness through true love. Yet this kind of complex-storytelling has been a well-known trait of Japanese animation, and should be no different here.
Fans of the novel that this film is based on have argued that Miyazaki's movie is a poor interpretation of Jones' story (apparently he changed things from the original to suit his imagination). Not having read the book, I can't comment on what parts of the story have been altered or which remain faithful, but as a genuinely huge fan of Miyazaki's work, I have to say that his adaptation is a charming delight on its own ground. Probably the best way to appreciate this film is to approach it as an inspiration for a masterpiece of animation, and not as an undistorted incarnation of Jones' world.
This is not to say, however, that Miyazaki's HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE is flawless--far from it. For fans spoiled by his more action-packed classics such as NAUSICAA and CASTLE IN THE SKY, this film offers little in the way of exciting set pieces. The overall story unfolds at a leisurely pace; this worked in favor of his more quieter, gentler children's tales such as MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, and of course the surrealistic SPIRITED AWAY, but here it sometimes comes off as a bit of a detriment. Given the war subplot and a few occasional action-sequences, one would expect HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE to at least have a grand climax. Regrettably, it concludes in a manner that is slower and more drawn-out than SPIRITED AWAY does, undermining its potential for an epic fantasy. I lay this blame, however, on myself; I had unrealistically high expectations for this film, and so I couldn't help but feel a little bit let down by the finale.
Still, in spite of its pacing problems, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE has a lot to offer in the way of visual fiestas, characters that one can identify with, and of course, Joe Hisaishi's richly romantic underscore. This may be a lesser film from Miyazaki, but HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE is nonetheless leaps and bounds above the weakest animated features out there and certainly better than the cute but inspired THE CAT RETURNS though not as memorable as his more well-known works. Nonetheless, it earns my highest recommendation; see it on the big screen while you still can, for it's one of the ultimate ways to truly experience this film.
On another matter, I am reluctant to choose a favorite out of the Disney/Miramax-produced English tracks for Miyazaki's movies because I have found every one of them to be of five-star quality and always a pleasure to listen to (even the ones that some folks are somewhat divided about, notably PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE IN THE SKY, and KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE). But for the record, Disney once again provides a very capable cast to lend their vocals to the characters and two skillful people to direct them (PIXAR's Pete Docter and Disney's own Rick Dempsey).
As Howl, Christian Bale displays charisma, emotion, and charm; he tends to speak softly, except for when he throws a fit about his hairdo, but this actually works for his character. Emily Mortimer is excellent as the sweet, sincere young Sophie, as is elderly Jean Simmons as her 90-year-old counterpart. This triumvirate is amply supported by the gravel tones of Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste, Josh Hutcherson as the childlike sorcerer Markl (who can make himself look older than he really is), Blythe Danner as Madam Suliman (an astonishingly minor part for a role that appears to command great presence), and longtime Anime voice-over (and huge Miyazaki fan) Crispin Freeman in a brief cameo at the end. (You can also hear him play various roles in the English version of GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.) Yet as with all the Disney/Miyazaki dubs, there is always one actor who will steal the spotlight from the others (not that this is a bad thing; I don't mind!), and this time it's the ever-amusing Billy Crystal. As the wily fire-demon Calcifer (who reminded me a lot of Phil Hartman's Jiji from KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE in both sarcasm and tone), Crystal scorches up the scenery and provides all the best moments as well as laughs (hey, he's hot). All told, yet another A+ grade Disney production on a solid little movie from Miyazaki.