February 10, 2015

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Grade: 70/100

Director: Hiyao Miyazaki
Stars: Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal

What it's about. This animé adventure and love story is set in a European kingdom with various retro and futuristic technologies. The kingdom is involved in an endless war with a distant kingdom that has caused great suffering for all.

Behind the war is the effective ruler of the kingdom, Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner). She commands the wizards of the kingdom, and if they will not obey her, she will drain their powers and leave them useless. On her list is Howl (Christian Bale), a kindly man who has a growing misfit adoptive family. The key member is Sophie (Jean Simmons), a young woman who appears old due to a malicious spell cast on her by the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). Howl and Sophie nonetheless love each other, and she doesn't care if Howl may actually be some sort of giant feathered bird that adopts human form.

Sophie and Howl live in a mobile castle controlled by a fire demon (Billy Crystal). Also there is Howl's pre-teenaged apprentice, Markl (Josh Hutcherson). Will the love between Howl and Sophie be sufficient to overcome all obstacles? Was there ever really any doubt?

How others will see it. Howl's Moving Castle was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature, losing to the much less ambitious Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Perhaps the Academy wished to spread the wealth away from Disney and its various purchased franchises.

Critics were generally again knocked over by Miyazaki's storytelling. The box office was vastly higher in Japan than in the U.S., despite the story association with European architecture, dress, and conception of beauty. But given the high IMDB user vote total, Howl's Moving Castle has been a big success as a western video release.

There is no question that the vast majority of viewers adore this movie. One wonders if they would feel differently had Sophie's water bucket killed Calcifer and, thus, Howl, leaving Sophie as a permanently elderly woman in a decrepit castle in the wilderness as the battleships continue to rain bombs on all from above.

How I felt about it. The most interesting characteristic of the film is the intermittent and gradual dissolution of the elderly spell on Sophie. At first, she appears old all the time, but later, in moments of passion (especially for Howl) she returns momentarily to her youth. At other times, she is in between. I suspect that there is significance behind all these reversions, but may not be worth the effort involved to understand them.

What I didn't like is the happy ending, which wraps things up tidily in predictable fashion. The war ends, everyone lives, the spell is broken on everyone, Howl and Sophie can be together forever, yadda yadda. Only, there is no punishment for Madame Suliman despite causing the deaths of presumably millions of people.

The happy ending, and the vague notion of peace and love overcoming war and evil, will always be audience pleasers. Disney certainly knows this, and so does Miyazaki. All that is missing is the tree-hugger philosophy present in Princess Monokone, which I still prefer.

I can't say that Princess Monokone is Miyazaki's best feature film, though, because he has six films in the IMDB Top 250, four of which (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Tortoro, Castle in the Sky, and Nausicaü of the Valley of the Wind) I haven't yet seen.

Miyazaki's success is only partly due to his adoption of popular, crowd-pleasing themes. His movies are too good to be considered sell-outs, even if they are ultimately lesser than the Toy Story franchise. Miyazaki's attention to story detail is the key element. The plots are mesmerizing, even if afterward, you can never quite make complete sense of it all.

I watched the version of the film dubbed by English-speaking name actors. In this case, I suspect that the Japanese language version is of similar quality.