The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Howl's Moving Castle

Originally published 12/20/05
Full review behind the jump

Howl’s Moving Castle

: Hayao Miyazaki. Dialogue direction for English-language version: Pete Docter, Rick Dempsey
: Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones. English language screenplay by Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt
: Toshio Suzuki. English language version produced by Ned Lott and Rick Dempsey
English language version featuring the vocal talents of
: Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, Josh Hutcherson, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner

Howl’s Moving Castle
may seem on the surface to be a smaller work than master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s triumph Spirited Away. Like all his films it creates an alternate world that entrances and delights, and tells within it a story of adventure that mixes thrills, gentleness and whimsy. But it doesn’t transport so profoundly as that previous work, perhaps because the hows and whys of its plot are more ambiguous, you’re always a little too behind in discovering the circumstances.

But seeing how it rates side-by-side with
Spirited Away draws attention only to its flaws, whereas underneath is an ambition, something that grows the movie in your affections long after it’s over. Fundamentally, Howl’s Moving Castle is a fable about the nature of love – purely offered, unreserved love. And to arrive there, we progress through a series of supernatural incidents that demonstrate, one after another, all the things we think are love but aren’t. It isn’t just attraction, it doesn’t come with conditions or bargains, it is not expressed in grand gestures or selfless sacrifice. You cannot love by giving your heart away, because what are you without a heart? Love is just love, and it binds us in happiness and makes us strong and free. You can forgive a little to any story that believes in a love like that.

The setting is an unnamed country sometime in the manic inventive throes of the Industrial Revolution. It’s not historically-accurate, but rather like this year’s Steamboy it revels in fantastical variations on what dreamers of the time might have conjured up. Steam-powered cars toot across the cobblestones while insect-like personal aircraft zip through the skies. A prince from a neighboring country has gone missing, and there’s talk that it will be used as a pretext for war. Fearsome flying battleships and other machines of destruction are powering up everywhere, and the king is dispatching orders for all wizards and witches to report for duty and serve the nation’s interests.

This is all beyond the scope of Sophie (Emily Mortimer), a shy girl who toils away in the back room of a hat shop, earning money for her family. She considers herself the plain one compared to her popular sister Lettie (Jena Malone), and has convinced herself that wanting nothing more out of life is the proper thing to do so everyone else can be taken care of.

This all changes the day she’s stalked in an alley by ominous ghostly blobs in hats, and she’s whisked away by the strapping young wizard Howl (Christian Bale). Howl is a mysterious figure, rarely seen – he lives in a fortress that’s equal parts castle, ship and mechanical crab, that lurches across the countryside hiding in fog banks. It’s whispered he steals the hearts of beautiful girls, and in the half-fearful, half-fascinated way some girls whisper it you sense they wouldn’t mind.

Why Howl has taken an interest in Sophie she doesn’t know yet, but that interest earns her the wrath of the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), a spiteful horror composed of great billowing folds of fatty tissue. She casts a curse on Sophie which turns her into a stooped old woman (Jean Simmons).

Miyazaki’s work has always been generous, willing to stop and contemplate a moment of behavior or flourish of beauty, and how unusual and pleasant it is that in the midst of this children’s story he lets the old Sophie discover the pains and indignities of aging – the way bones crack and protest. Hers was an unhappy life, and she was in danger of giving away her best years. Now she’s quite literally lost her youth.

She enters the untamed lands, the Waste, hoping to find Howl and get help. Along the way she makes a beguiling friend – an enchanted scarecrow she calls Turniphead – who cannot speak, make faces or move except to bounce along on his pole, and yet we never fail to know his emotional state. A great animator and filmmaker can do that.

And she enters the castle, inhabited by the boy-wizard-in-training Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and Howl himself, who is changeable in mood and enigmatic; sometimes much more than he seems, but also sometimes less. Powering the castle is a feisty fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), who is bound to Howl in a relationship we understand a little better as the story progresses. Once Calcifer had great power, now he serves as cook, heater and engine, and manifests himself as a nervous, wide-eyed flame constantly afraid for his food supply.

Where it goes from there you won’t always have a solid grip on, but the experience of a Miyazaki movie is much greater than the sum of its incidents. He does not aim for perfection or realism in his images, some of his most striking landscapes are impressionistic, you can see each stroke of paint that stands in for clusters of trees on a distant mountain. This gives him the freedom to emphasize, and celebrate – there’s indescribable joy in both the big (the castle clawing across the hills as a tiny shepherd looks up from his flock to wave) and the little (a small fat dog scuttling around in a panicked circle) that he presents us. And you can swear that in some scenes Sophie doesn’t look quite as old as others, and what does that mean? Miyazaki shows us that a world where everything is not explained to you can be frightening, but it’s a worthy price to pay for the magic. Howl’s Moving Castle is more about poetry than reason – you’ll feel more than you understand. And when you reach the end, the feeling that remains is simpler and better than most movies can provide.


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