Monday, January 26, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Howl's Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) 10/10
Sophie is a plain and serious young woman who runs a hat shop. Howl is a famous wizard who lives in a castle that walks about the countryside. After a chance meeting between them, Sophie is visited by the dreaded Witch of the Waste, who places Sophie under a curse, turning her into an old woman. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Howl’s Moving Castle is an extraordinary film experience. It is dense, surprising, and very human. The characters have a richness that belies their cartoony nature. The magical occurrences are wildly imaginative. My son and I would turn to each other while watching and say “I love this!” and “I can’t wait to see what happens next!”

The movie is not perfect. It is perhaps over-complicated, and definitely over-long. There is a war going on that both drives and is background to the real plot, which is the slowly burgeoning romance between Sophie and Howl, and more importantly, each character’s awakening. Sophie is brave and bold, but hates herself. She finds freedom as an old woman, no longer expected to be pretty or criticized for not fitting in. Howl is callow, his power and beauty let him get away with pretty much anything, and a moving home is the perfect avenue (and metaphor) for running away. Each must grow in order to find their love for the other.

Meanwhile, there’s this war. And a couple of different curses. And a talking fire voiced by Billy Crystal. Plus several other characters, some magical, some not, and demons and wizards and whoa, here comes the war again. So yeah, it’s a bit much.

But the delight in experiencing this rich and complex world is tremendous. The story is based on British fantasy novel, and overlaying it with a Japanese sensibility creates an otherworldly, magical blend. This is no place we know, in no time we’ve lived. It's sort of 1910, sort of Katzenjammer Kids, sort of steampunk, sort of Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang meets Lord of the Rings. Every person, every magical creature, and every object is part of a unique and startling aesthetic.

The American voice work is very good. Christian Bale sounds exactly right for a Japanese film. It's quite an all-star cast, including Jean Simmons as Old Sophie and Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste.

As a comparison, I think Spirited Away is a better movie, but Howl's Moving Castle is, in many ways, more original (and isn't drawing from Japanese mythology and folk legends), and the character work is more interesting.

(Deborah's Moving Cross-Post)