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HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE

Review by Ed Nguyen

English Voices: Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Josh Hutcherson, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Blythe Danner
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Audio: Japanese, French, or English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Disney
Features: Hello Mr. Lasseter featurette, Behind the Microphone, interview, trailers, storyboards feature
Length: 119 minutes
Release Date: March 7, 2006

"There's nothing but witches and wizards out there!"

Film *** Ĺ

There's nothing quite like an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki.  For years, Miyazaki and his band of like-minded animators from Studio Ghibli have been champions for the dying art of traditional cel animation.  Shunning the current trend towards computer animation, Miyazaki's films regularly embrace hand-drawn artwork to complement their imaginative stories set in vividly realized fantasy worlds.  Nowadays when the field of animation is dominated in the West by wise-cracking CG critters and in the East by big robots and busty teens, the typical Miyazaki film is a sweet throwback to a simpler and more innocent era of animation.

If there is one common thread coursing through many of Miyazaki's films, it is the theme of environmentalism.  Some of Miyazaki's best films, such as Nausicaš of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, have been allegorical entreaties for humanity to find a more synergistic way to co-habituate with the natural world.  The typical Miyazaki film views industrialization as a potential evil - the technological advancements achieved by modern progress are beneficial but, when wielded by misguided hands, can lead to unnecessary tragedies and grave hardships.

Howl's Moving Castle adheres to these general themes.  The film is set in a pseudo-Victorian society with its inherently genteel manners.  Herein, most everybody is friendly and cheerful as they go about their usual bustle of life among the quaint cobblestone roads of typical Ye Olde English villages.  But in the background, there linger the omnipresent, incredible machineries of man - hovering aerial battleships, wasp-like helicopters, nautical vessels of war.  And then, there is also Howl's magical castle, a fantastical, quadriped fortress that literally wanders the distant hills and foggy mountains.  Consider it a more immense and better armored variant of Baba Yaga's chicken-legged hut.  In Howl's Moving Castle, wizards and witches thus co-exist with imperialistic nations, bestowing upon this fantasy world a quaintly anachronistic marriage of Victorian romanticism with industrialism and medieval mysticism.

The warlock Howl is one of the more feared wizards.  Legend has it that he enjoys abducting pretty girls and eating out their hearts.  Naturally, this bodes poorly for our story's heroine, Sophie, a young seamstress and hat-maker who has the misfortune one day of encountering Howl himself while strolling through town.  But as with most legends, the truth is often rather benign, and in fact the supposedly malevolent Howl rescues Sophie from a pair of overly-attentive soldiers.

This oddly chivalrous deed leaves Sophie in a state of mild bewilderment.  However, she has little opportunity to ponder over the ramifications of her encounter with Howl or the subsequent flight across town from would-be pursuers.  As if one mystic were not enough, that same evening Sophie is visited by the Witch of the Waste, an overly-corpulent and jealous creature once quite amorous of Howl.  The Witch desires Howl's heart for herself and views the unsuspecting Sophie as a potential rival for his affections.  But if the erstwhile warlock will not have the Witch, than neither should he be allowed to have young Sophie, either!  The Witch, before departing, casts a damning spell upon poor Sophie.  In an instant, Sophie is transformed into an old woman, deprived of her youth and youth's energy.  Even worse, this withering curse prevents Sophie from revealing the nature of her malady to anyone.

Even before her transformation, Sophie was a somewhat reserved girl, demure and somewhat passive.  The unexpected effect of the curse laid upon her by the Witch of the Waste is to stir Sophie out of her doldrums.  In the morning, she leaves town for the eastern wastelands on a resolute mission to locate the Witch of the Waste and to reverse the spell.  It is the beginning of the archetypal "hero's journey," a call to adventure much like a stroll down the Yellow Brick Road or a spelunking trip down an expansive White Rabbit hole.  This journey's end eventually will bring a sense of rebirth and purpose to Sophie's life, replacing the former emptiness with love and a joy of life itself.

But first, Sophie must brave many dangers.  Fortunately, many colorful companions will help her along the way.  There is naturally a scarecrow (amusingly nicknamed Turnip-Head) and a little dog with floppy ears (perhaps even large enough for flight).  And yes, there is also a wizard or two who is not all he appears to be.  And then, there is that wonderful castle itself, not quite made of emerald but just as magical, with portals opening up to multiple realms and a source of power that harbors a deep secret about the magician Howl, a secret long sought by the Witch of the Waste herself.

In this age when demons and changelings abound, Sophie's adventures represent merely one story in the incredible world of Howl's Moving Castle.  Howl himself suffers from a curse, too, and he must flee from the convoluted deceptions of yet another powerful royal sorceress who hopes to capture him.  Among the numerous other sub-plots are the disappearance of the prince of a nearby kingdom, the consequent war into which the world is soon plunged, and the surreal confluence of industrial might and mystical magic in first exacerbating (and then resolving) this all-out clash.  From everywhere, wizards and witches are summoned to participate in this conflict, presented as an allegorical diatribe against the excesses and wastefulness of warfare.

All in all, during the film's two-hour running length, Miyazaki throws an incredible plethora of storylines at audiences for them to digest.  Adults may find themselves somewhat adrift by this flood of endless plot intrigues, but ironically, any child accustomed to the typically over-the-top complexity of Japanese anime cartoons should have no trouble at all with Howl's Moving Castle.  Groucho Marx once remarked, after all, upon receiving an incomprehensible government parchment,  "Why a four-year-old child could understand this report!  Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can't make head or tail of it."

Not surprisingly, Howl's Moving Castle is really a film more suited for children than adults.  The Miyazaki touch ensures that the story is never insultingly condescending or watered down for common denomination appeal, but Miyazaki's trademark "make it up as we go along" narrative style results in a less-than-tight story arc, more so with Howl's Moving Castle than with other recent Miyazaki films.  Nonetheless, with the brilliant realization on-screen of its many original and imaginative themes, this film is a wondrous and magical achievement that embraces all the universal qualities inherent to Miyazaki's films - a nostalgic sense of innocence, the magic of a world as experienced through the eyes of children, and an unwavering optimism that love and kindness are the fruits of true happiness.

And ultimately, if Howl's Moving Castle is any indication, the ideal of youth is less defined by one's physical appearance or age in years than by the true joy in one's own heart, an exuberance for life that can dispel even the harshest of curses.

Video ****

Howl's Moving Castle looks very good in this transfer.  Colors are vibrant, and the clarity of details is excellent.  The picture quality is pristine, and fans of the film should be quite pleased with Disney's presentation of the film for this DVD.

Audio ****

Naturally, the immersive original Japanese audio track is the ideal choice for the listening experience, but viewers who prefer not to read subtitles may elect the optional English (or French) soundtrack instead.  By default, the film will use the English dub version, which is actually not too bad, as far as these things go.

Features ***

There are two discs in this release.  The first DVD opens with a promo for various Studio Ghibli films, a special edition DVD of The Little Mermaid, Pixar's Cars, and Chicken Little.  These can also be viewed in the Sneak Peeks section, which includes trailers for The Chronicles of Narnia and Airbuddies, too.  Twelve minutes of trailers for Howl's Moving Castle are also on this first disc.

Elsewhere on this disc are Behind the Microphone (9 min.), a quick look at the principal English voice actors involved in the dubbing process, and an interview (7 min.) with Peter Docter, who helped to translate the film into English.  Unfortunately, the questions posed during this interview are presented in Japanese without translation.  If you don't understand Japanese, well then you lose.  At least Docter's comments are in English, so the questions can be deduced from his answers (a somewhat backwards way of approaching an interview).

Hello Mr. Lasseter (16 min.) follows Toshio Suzuki, producer at Studio Ghibli, on his tour of the Pixar studio and the premiere screening of the English-dubbed version of Howl's Moving Castle.  Too bad the sound is occasionally muffled for this video, so regardless of the audio as spoken English or Japanese, you lose again.  At least this featurette offers a rare look at that wonderful Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory otherwise known as the Pixar studio.  Plus, where else can you see the two greatest modern masters of animation, John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki, together?

Disc Two is devoted entirely to a feature-length presentation of the film's storyboards.  This is a standard feature for Miyazaki films released by Disney and offers an alternate way of viewing the entire film again, albeit in very rough form (but at least with a finished soundtrack). 

Summary:

Pure magic!  There is always something new to discover in Howl's Moving Castle, which simply improves with each subsequent viewing.  A wonderful film suited for the entire family, and highly recommended!

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