Howl's Moving Castle

(Hauru No Ugoku Shiro)

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Jean Simmons, Emily Mortimer, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Blythe Josh Hutcherson
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki (based on novel by Diana Wynne Jones)
Distributor: Buena Vista (US)
MPAA Rating: PG for frightening images and brief mild language
Running Time: 119 minutes

Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Animation – 8
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total – 7.2 out of 10

I’ve been a Miyazaki fan for many years now, from his Saturday morning cartoon series to films such as TOTORO, CASTLE IN THE SKY, and the Oscar-winning SPIRITED AWAY. With HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, Miyazaki returns to the fantasy world set in a war-time western society.

Young Sofi (Mortimer) is a quiet, introverted girl who works at her mother’s hat shop. She’s fascinated by Howl (Bale), a handsome wizard who travels in his magical castle. Her brief encounter with Howl angers the Witch of the Waste (Bacall), who turns Sofi into an old woman (Simmons). Determined to find a way to undo the spell, Sofi sets out on a journey, amid a war between her country and its neighbor. Helped by an enchanted scarecrow, Sofi finds her way into Howl’s moving castle and becomes his cleaning lady. Eventually, Sofi falls in love with Howl, who has given his heart to the fire demon Calcifer (Crystal). Sofi must help Howl fight the war and find his heart…

There is really no good way to summarize Miyazaki’s story. His plot has so many twists and turns and some of them come from nowhere and are very irrelevant, and yet, his story never fails to enchant us. Based on Diana Wynne Jones’ novel, this fantasy is a wild ride, involving everything from wizards and witches to magic to fantastical machines to mythologies to fairytales to angels and demons. Miyazaki has a vivid imagination, and his vision is a testimony to that.

The voice talents in the English version are excellent. Mortimer (DEAR FRANKIE) sounds a little too old as young Sofi, but her voice has a great, mature quality to give Sofi’s character some weight. Simmons (FINAL FANTASY) is fantastic and spirited as the elderly Sofi. You really identify with her character and you’re willing to follow her around. Bacall (BIRTH) is really funny, actually, as the Witch of the Waste. Combined with the animation, that is one wicked character. Bale (BATMAN RETURNS) also gives a wonderful performance as the titular character, a vain, detached boy-man. Crystal (ANALYZE THAT) lends his distinctive voice as Calcifer, the fire demon. Danner (SILVIA) is cool and mean as Howl’s nemesis, the sorceress Madam Suliman.

Saturated with realistic details, Miyazaki’s animated features have certain surreal quality that enthralls audience from around the world. The film is no exception. His western world is populated with many typical Japanese-inspired characters and mythical creatures. The animation is, as usual, a feast to the eyes. Vivid colors, interesting characters, and the natural beauty of the sceneries are Miyazaki’s trademarks. At times, there is too much to take in and the animation seems to take on a rather ridiculous tone. Over all, that is what we come to like about Miyazaki’s animation: imaginative and thought provoking, great fun for the entire family.

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