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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 Jay Seaver

"Simply and amazingly perfect."
5 stars

The work coming out of Japan (Hayao Miyazaki being the greatest example) should really shame American animation studios. I'm not just talking about the cleverly designed by purely commercial things like "Robots" and "Madagascar", but even the best American animated features aren't nearly as adventurous and full of amazing sights and stories. Even the greatest American animated features, the universally beloved films from Pixar, tend to focus on the familiar and comfortable.

Not so Howl's Moving Castle. The very first scene gives a look at the chicken-legged mechanical mountain of the title, and we've barely met the hero and heroine before they're being menaced by creepy, tar-like blob men. The town they run through looks like nineteenth-century Switzerland, but it has an express train running through the center, flying motorcycles, storefront wizards, and titanic floating battleships. There's a friendly fire demon who initially looks like floating eyes until you realize they're part of the fire, and flying monsters that we're told are wizards who have forgotten how to turn themselves human again. There's hellish visions of war and beautifully pastoral images.

The plot sometimes seems to wander a little. A young hatmaker named Sophie meets the mysterious wizard Howl in a back alley, but the consequence is that Howl's enemy, the Wicked Witch of the Waste, casts a spell on her, making her an old woman and unable to tell anyone what happened. Hoping to find a solution, she makes her way to the wastelands, where witches and wizards roam unpoliced, hoping to find someone who can restore her. Instead, she finds a spooky-looking scarecrow, who in turn leads her to Howl's rather mobile home. There, she meets Howl's apprentice Markl, and his captured fire demon Calcifer, but Howl himself doesn't appear to recognize her, and is fearful about his teacher, Madame Sariman, drawing him in to fight in the kingdom's latest war. She installs herself as the cleaning lady and waits.

Part of what makes Howl so absorbing is that it doesn't try to tell everyone's stories in their entirety. We meet Sophie's mother and younger sister, both of whom are rather popular with men, and we hear reference to her late father. We learn enough to know that there is some history between them, and maybe complicated feelings, but don't have all the details spelled out. We learn that there is a war going on, but now who it's with, or what it's about. It's not just background, as it does impact the plot and characters, but it also never takes control narratively (though it does impact the visuals in the latter half of the movie). The history that Howl, Sariman, and the Witch of the Waste share is similarly intertwined, and the connections spoken aloud for the audience's benefit are clearly not the whole story. We never learn why Markl is in Howl's care (I say he's the apprentice, but he's never named as such). This is not a weakness, though - it puts us in Sophie's position. Howl's world is bigger and stranger than hers, and she's not going to be able to learn all about it.

Though the film is adapted from a Western source, the main characters as presented by Miyazaki seem to come directly from shojo manga. Sophie is not quite shy, but she recognizes that she appears plain relative to her mother and her sister and is reconciled to being in their shadow. Perhaps she takes after her father, who opened the hat shop; she takes pride in her careful work in putting her hats together. Howl sweeps her off her feet, literally, but is not the roguish, rugged man he might be in a Western movie. He's more beautiful than handsome, drawn almost as androgynous, easily frightened despite all his power and apt to burst into tears when his hair gets messed up. He grows feathers rather than a beard. Clacifer shares Howl's fearfulness, making it shocking when he flares up to an inferno while casting a particularly powerful spell. I saw a subtitled print, and kind of have a hard time believing that Billy Crystal dubs this voice in the American version; Tatsuya Gashuin makes him a cowardly, conniving demon, equal parts child and old man, unwilling to admit he's attached to Howl and his coterie. I'm similarly curious about Christian Bale playing Howl; after Batman Begins, he seems too powerful for the part.

It might be worth seeing again in English, if only to give me an excuse to see it again and maybe sort a few of the subtleties out. One way Miyazaki makes intriguing use of his medium is to allow Sophie's apparent age to change with perspective. At one point in the middle of the film, she seems to be young again, and it's not clear that she's dreaming until a bit later. There are shots that imply Howl can see through her curse, but he never comments on it, and during the last act, there may be meaning to how she appears that I didn't catch at the time. Miyazaki is sometimes subtle about how he slips us important bits of information, and with a story as rich as Howl's, one viewing may not be enough to get all of it. You can follow it, but further rumination makes it clear that you didn't quite catch everything.

Howl's Moving Castle is a dense, intelligent work that demands your attention. Not to denigrate other fine works in the medium, but as much as I loved movies like The Incredibles, Beauty and the Beast, Antz, et al, I felt like I knew them after seeing them once. I don't know this one so much; I know that I was impressed and entertained, but I also know that seeing it again will tell me more, and I'm curious about that.

Of course, for those that want entertainment over analysis, it's a funny, thrilling, whimsical, melancholy, exhilarating two hours. It's just romantic and scary enough for kids to love it, and smart enough for adults to perhaps love it even more.

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originally posted: 06/27/05 10:43:53
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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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