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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 28.09%
Average: 4.49%
Pretty Bad: 3.37%
Total Crap: 1.12%

6 reviews, 53 user ratings

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Howl's Moving Castle
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Another career-defining masterpiece from Hayao Miyazaki"
5 stars

About twenty minutes or so into “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the latest animated masterpiece (and yes, I am completely comfortable with calling it that) from the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, there comes a brief moment that crystallizes for me what makes both the man and his work so special. It is a moment in which a 18-year-old girl, who has just been transformed by a witch’s curse into a 90-year-old crone, goes to look at her new visage in the mirror. In most films, animated or otherwise, the scene would have been played as either a big laugh or a big shock. Instead, Miyazaki treats it in a more realistic and human manner–she slowly regards her new image and takes the time to absorb what has happened to her. Additionally, he adds another layer to the reveal by having her look into a tri-cornered mirror that supplies slightly different reflections in each section, a choice that quietly and effectively adds extra layers of detail without stealing the focus away from the character’s reaction.

This is the approach that Miyazaki has utilized in all of his films–of which “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke” are probably the best-known in America–and it is one that is a refreshing change from the hard-sell antics of junk like “Madagascar” or “Shark Boy and Lava Girl.” He creates elaborately designed worlds and then dares to populate them with characters who are just as complex and detailed as their surroundings and place them in the kind of clean, clear narrative that is as deep and profound as the artiest art film, yet can be understood and appreciated by the youngest children. “Howl’s Moving Castle” continues this approach and the results are stunning–this is a film that can serve as both the summation of a long and distinguished career and a perfect introduction to his work for those poor souls who have yet to experience it for themselves.

The film is set in a land and time where fantastic myth and harsh reality coexist–there are spirits and ghosts and a giant moving castle whose owner, the mysterious Howl (voiced by Christian Bale), is said to have a taste for the hearts of any young girl who wanders across his path, not to mention stores and factories and giant bombers flying overhead. As the story opens, young Sophie (Emily Mortimer), who devotes her entire life working in the hat shop once owned by her late and beloved father, meets Howl on the street and is rescued by him when strange ghost begin to attack. This rescue does not go unnoticed by the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who jealously wants Howl for herself. Misunderstanding what happened, the Witch casts an especially cruel spell on Sophie–she transforms her in a 90-year-old version of herself (now voiced by Jean Simmons) and makes it so that while Sophie knows exactly what has happened, she is unable to tell anyone of her plight.

Mortified, Sophie flees and, thanks to the aid of a silent, turnip-headed scarecrow that she helps, she comes across Howl’s castle as it wanders through the fields and hops aboard. Inside, she encounters Howl, his young apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and Calcifer (Billy Crystal),a fire demon who powers the castle and who is bound to Howl by a curse similar to Sophie’s. Howl doesn’t recognize the aged Sophie, whom he brings aboard as the caretaker for the castle, but he senses something about her and as the days go by, the formerly self-involved Howl begins to fall in love. Before that can happen, however, the ongoing war that is raging between neighboring lands over a missing prince and the machinations of Madame Sulliman (Blythe Danner), the highly influential royal sorceress who was also Howl’s former mentor, threaten the lives and happiness of Sophie and Howl.

While the bare-bones description of “Howl’s Moving Castle” may make it sound like typical fantasy nonsense, it is utterly unlike anything that one could imagine being produced by an American animation studio for a mass audience. There are no songs, no goofy pop-culture references and no characters that seem to have been created simply to sell plush toys. It features a central character who is seen as a 90-year-old woman for the majority of the running time and actually dares to suggest that old age is something to embrace instead of fear. The scenes involving the characters deploying their mystical powers are done in a lovely, low-key manner, especially the off-handedly beautiful bit where Howl and Sophie matter-of-factly walk through the air while escaping their pursuers. And when it wants to put across an anti-war message, it does so in the most direct manner possible–by depicting the horrors of war unflinchingly (in a terrifying firebombing raid) and letting the visuals speak for themselves.

Instead, Miyazaki takes the time to tell the story that he wants–a meditation on young love, old age and the folly of war–in the manner that he wants while assuming that his audience, young and old, is smart enough to follow along without having things spoon-fed to them. While the pacing may seem slow at first to those used to today’s hyperactive entertainments, I suspect that they will quickly grow used to the more deliberate pacing and become caught up in the story. This isn’t to suggest that the film lacks for excitement–there are plenty of thrilling visuals (especially the sight of the castle as it moves throughout the land) to be had and the finale is as breathlessly exciting as anything that Miyazaki has ever put on film. The difference is that when the action finally does break out, the film has made it so that we actually give a damn what happens to the characters as things begin to collapse around them.

Lately, there has been much talk about how traditional 2-D animation is being phased out in order to make way for the flashier, 3-D CGI variety. As Miyazaki proves here once again, there is a beauty and elegance to traditional animation that cannot be replicated with CGI and anyone sounding that particular death knell should take a close look at this film to realize how wrong they are. Every scene of this film is a ravishing sight for sore eyes and it is worth watching again and again just to catch all of the little details that might be missed the first time around. The irony is that this English-language version has been prepared with the assistance of the guys at Pixar (supervised by Pete Doctor, the director of “Monsters Inc.”), a studio whose wondrous creations have helped to doom traditional animation. However, the Pixar-Miyazaki connection makes sense because both know how to create lovely visuals as well as the trickier craft of creating meaningful stories in which to deploy them.

The smart touch that Doctor brings to the proceedings is the same attitude towards voice casting that has worked for Pixar over the years–instead of simply casting the highest-profile names, he has simply picked strong actors who are perfectly suited for the roles. Christian Bale wonderfully maintains a balance between the heroic and menacing as Howl while Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons are equally impressive in their various incarnations of Sophie. As the imperious Witch of the Waste, Lauren Bacall is flat-out perfect and Blythe Danner also has a lot of fun as Madame Sulliman. When I saw Billy Crystal’s name among the credits, I admit to shuddering a little bit–how would his brash voice fit in amidst the otherwise restrained trappings. However, the fears were unfounded as even he turns in a smart performance as the fire demon without ever going overboard.

A feast for the eyes and the mind alike, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is not just a great motion picture for audiences of all ages, it is likely to be the closest thing to a genuine work of art that any of us are likely to encounter this summer in a building that also serves Sno-Caps. Even the Pixar masterworks of late pale before Miyazaki’s seemingly effortless ability to reach the hearts and minds of all who encounter his work–to their credit, I suspect that they would be the first to admit this for themselves. For anyone who needs to be reminded of the astonishing power of the medium of film, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is that film and much more.

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originally posted: 06/10/05 14:07:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2005 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sydney Film Festival For more in the 2005 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/04/20 Christy Cahill Whimsical, beautiful animation, lovable characters, can't get any better than this! 5 stars
1/19/16 Alexis H Coming of age, discovering love, finding your place in the world 5 stars
11/25/13 Vanessa C. Great movie. 5 stars
11/05/09 Billy no comment messesary 1 stars
10/26/09 Faggot84 Lecturing or singing about short vowels is unlikely to prevent the errors children often ma 5 stars
10/26/09 BadGirl60 Leader-solicited responses from whomever with respect to decisions to be made can become ro 3 stars
10/25/09 Barbara84 The particular characteristics of this ideal observer can vary from an omniscient observer, 5 stars
10/25/09 His_wife98 Rothbard Copyright © 2005 Ludwig von Mises Institute, fifth edition All rights reserved. , 2 stars
10/25/09 No_limits50 Do you still have a two-part edition of the show or is this limited just to summer time? , 3 stars
10/25/09 Kelvin21 American women do not do this, whereas women here seem obligated by law to do so. , <a href 4 stars
10/24/09 Coder18 As a result, modular green roof technologies are rapidly gaining popularity. , <a href="h 2 stars
10/24/09 John19 An analogy might be sought in the working of a large manufacturing plant in a factory. , 5 stars
10/23/09 Alex23 But you are lost in minutiae, barry. , 5 stars
10/23/09 Loy68 If you do have a choice of surgeon or hospital, ask the surgeon the following questions: Wh 5 stars
10/23/09 Red20 Some municipalities may have local laws that are stricter then the state law. , 5 stars
10/23/09 Arnold56 Has anyone ever heard of standards being raised because of their presence or contribution? 5 stars
9/21/09 More on the pancake project: a wide spectrum of humanity, from hillbillies to eggheads, is 5 stars
5/08/09 Stephen Beautiful art great movie! 5 stars
3/03/09 brian World's greatest anime artist strikes again 4 stars
7/04/08 Steve Great movie, but i'm sure the books is better like most book the movie films. 5 stars
1/20/08 eleni looooove it 5 stars
3/27/07 fools&#9835;gold As fun as an ancient Greek story about a hero/god, I rcmmnd watchin both Jap + Eng versions 5 stars
11/02/06 Kiwi I don't normally like anime,but it was really good. Howl is cute! 4 stars
4/11/06 Alex ridiculizando peliculas estadounidenses 5 stars
4/05/06 Annie G Having never read the book, I felt left out while watching this movie ... but, it's ok. 4 stars
3/28/06 Brian Meyer This film is an oasis in the desert known as "modern cinema" 5 stars
3/25/06 Eileen Sheehan Great!! I love anime!1 5 stars
3/15/06 Shannon Robles i think this is the best animated film i have seen in a long time! 5 stars
3/11/06 the laughing man Another Myazaki Masterpiece. 5 stars
3/03/06 Tiffany Faye Hawthorne Overlong, waxing incoherent, sometimes ugly. A merciful average. 3 stars
1/26/06 Sean Hartlieb An anime of non -stop imagination directly from Myazaki's mind. 5 stars
11/03/05 Treavor Hammons I was dragged into this wonderful worl dof magic and imgination as soon as the flim began. 5 stars
10/25/05 Green Gremlin Another great anime from Miyazaki 5 stars
10/18/05 Mee Great movie, but the ending's absolute crap. 3 stars
10/04/05 elendil Plot lacks coherency. And I'm usually a fan of Miyazaki. 2 stars
9/16/05 Jonathon Holmes not as good as "Spirited Away", but entertaning nonetheless 4 stars
8/23/05 Sophia It is now my favorite movie by far. 5 stars
8/17/05 Agent Sands Great Miyazaki fun. Beautiful, funny, and engrossing. 5 stars
8/13/05 Ben Quinn Miyazaki focused a bit too much on the art in this one. I got lost a few times... 4 stars
8/10/05 Grace A little magic is passed to the viewer, as far as I could tell 5 stars
8/09/05 unknown It so totally rocks!!!!!!! Howl is HOT!!!!!!! 5 stars
7/28/05 Lisa Amazing, Breathtaking, and A Joy to Watch 5 stars
7/21/05 Rachyl This movie was increadable! A must see! 5 stars
7/19/05 Kayla I love this movie so much please tell me its coming out really soon 5 stars
7/19/05 Brenda Such a great movie, when is it coming out on DVD!! 5 stars
7/15/05 jcjs lovely, clever, smart, beautiful, engaging, moving 5 stars
7/12/05 Kankasaur And I thought the Rocky Horror castle was clever! 4 stars
7/08/05 Kitty Awsome movie! Wanted to see it again and again 5 stars
6/30/05 YS Pure pleasure for your soul 5 stars
6/28/05 Michael Enchanting, rich, beautiful. Wonderful movie, entertaining and extraordinary. 5 stars
6/22/05 Gini Despite the efforts of my friends, I'm no anime fan. But I'll own this one on DVD. Great! 5 stars
6/21/05 Agent Sands Just a masterpiece. A perfect example of an enjoyable movie. Highly creative, great for all 5 stars
6/18/05 Titus Simply wonderful. The best kind of movie: charming and hauntingly beautiful. 5 stars
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  10-Jun-2005 (PG)
  DVD: 07-Mar-2006



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