by Mel Valentin
Based on the novel for young adults by Diana Wynne Jones, "Howl’s Moving Castle," scripted and directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli, may signal a decline in Miyazaki’s storytelling skills or simply Miyazaki’s unwillingness to take narrative or visual risks with material that closely tracks his previous work, e.g., "Castle in the Sky" (a/k/a "Laputa: Castle in the Sky") and "Kiki’s Delivery Service." Viewers familiar with these films will notice multiple similarities in terms of setting, character design, and themes (i.e., personal growth through hardship, redemption or reconciliation through love, female empowerment, anti-militarism, etc.), as well as Miyazaki’s trademark preoccupations with flight and impossible flying machines (i.e., impossible by the “ordinary” laws of physics and aerodynamics).Like Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle is set in an imaginary Europe, an industrialized or industrializing pre-World War I Europe. Here, militarism and nationalism are the norm, as crowds gather to cheer a military procession through the town square (small airships cross the skies. The grim realities of mechanized war are still in Europe’s future. The thundering, bomb-carrying airships, small or massive, are clearly inspired by the airships Miyazaki created for Castle in the Sky. Where Castle in the Sky mixed European history, science fiction, and action/adventure into credible steampunk (machines in this world are uniformly powered by steam), Howl’s Moving Castle adds fantasy elements, e.g., wizards and witches (benevolent, wicked, or ambiguous), anthropomorphized animate and animated objects (some for comic relief), literalized metaphors (i.e., hearts here can be “stolen” from their owners), and, of course, Howl’s moving castle, an enormous, enchanted contraption that resembles a fish with wings, moves on (four) chicken feet. The castle's front door also opens onto four, different locations (the door, of course, will play a key part late in the film).
"A modest, flawed effort from a master filmmaker."
As Howl’s Moving Castle opens, Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer as a young adult and by Jean Simmons as an old woman), a young woman who works in a hat shop, finds herself saved by the handsome, if incredibly vain, Howl (Christian Bale), from the clutches of two overeager soldiers. Howl, it seems, is also fleeing a pursuer. From what becomes immediately apparent: blob men employed by the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), an oversized witch with an appetite for younger wizards. The Witch, jealous of Sophie’s encounter with Howl, casts a spell on her. Sophie ages from young to old in a matter of seconds, losing a lifetime of possibility in the process. The spell also precludes Sophie from telling anyone about the curse. Realizing that the curse cannot be undone without magical help, Sophie leaves her town, friends, and family behind, and begins both her inner journey (from self-doubt to self-confidence and maturity) and her outer journey (a counter-spell to break the curse).
Through the intervention of a new friend, Sophie enters into Howl’s service as Howl’s new housekeeper. The already large cast of characters gets larger with the addition of Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a wise cracking, petulant fire demon who operates Howl’s moving castle; Markl (Josh Hutcherson), Howl’s adolescent apprentice; and Howl himself, who, unable to look past surface appearances, doesn’t recognize Sophie in her new guise. Sophie, however, adds domestic stability to Howl’s castle. The Witch of the Waste is still in pursuit, but more importantly, the king has requested Howl’s service in a war against a neighboring country. Howl, bound by law and custom (and suffering from his own curse), can’t refuse the king’s request. Despite being vain, self-centered, and callous, Howl opposes the war, even as his opposition presents itself as a transformation into something less-than-human.
It’s in developing Sophie and Howl's relationship, however, that Miyazaki stumbles and stumbles badly. Miyazaki’s heroes and heroines are typically younger, and their relationships with the opposite sex tend toward platonic friendship not romance. In Castle in the Sky, the relationship between the two central characters is more platonic than romantic, due to their young age (although it’s strongly suggested that their relationship will become romantic as they grow older). Here, Miyazaki’s unsophisticated, simplistic approach to romantic relationships almost derails Howl’s Moving Castle. Castle in the Sky emphasized action/adventure over romance. It’s difficult to accept Sophie’s growing desire for Howl or Howl’s reciprocating that desire. Miyazaki’s script makes Howl’s change less than credible (i.e., gradations in his behavior are missing). The continuing emphasis on Sophie and Howl’s underdeveloped relationship also drags the second hour down, at least until the inevitable collision between Howl, Sophie, and their allies on one side and the film’s (mostly) abstract villains on the other turns Howl’s Moving Castle into an action/adventure film. Clearly, Miyazaki could have benefited from a stronger, more present villain (he switches villains halfway through the film, and leaves the second villain woefully undeveloped).Despite a shaky, overlong second half and familiar themes and visual motifs, Miyazaki’s trademark attention to visual style, from the backgrounds to the color design, is everywhere evident in "Howl’s Moving Castle." For a film that attempts to appeal across demographics (e.g., children and their parents, adult anime fans), Miyazaki does take a substantial risk in depicting the effects of war. The once wistful, uplifting scenes of a perfect ordered world (as seen from the sky) inevitably give way to firebombed cities to a battleship limping into a seaside dock, followed by a squadron of fighters that sends civilians scurrying for safety. In a brief scene, Miyazaki displays a mocking distrust of hereditary rulers. The imaginary king of this imaginary kingdom is nothing more than an overgrown boy, treating war like a game with toy soldiers and airplanes. He seems limited in his ability to comprehend the death and destruction (on his own people) that follow as a direct result of his actions. Then too, Miyazaki shows us the real power behind the throne, an unelected advisor acting in service of a "righteous" cause.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=12248&reviewer=402
originally posted: 06/18/05 13:16:59