BluRay/DVD Reviews

HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE

By • Mar 7th, 2006 •

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(Disney) 2004 / 119 mins / 1.85:1 AR / Rated ‘PG’.
Japanese language as well as English.

Films in Review has been running a SLIME CITY DVD giveaway. The way one wins is to name five other films which include melting people. Names like THE DEVIL’S RAIN and STREET TRASH come to mind. But there’s also HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, believe it or not. The eponymous adolescent wizard, when humiliated about his uncool hair color, decomposes into green slime (oops…there’s another title).

Miyazaki has set the much-lauded tone for the Disney studio of late for more traditional animation. He wrote the screenplay to this one, adapting the book by Diana Wynne Jones, and either much has been lost in the translation, or Ms. Jones was working without all her inner logic hooked up. It’s a children’s dream world, to be sure, with Sophie, the young heroine, changed by a witch’s spell into an old hag, though she’s still able to look after her love object – an emotionally distant, shape-shifting human/bird-of-prey named Howl. Lurking in their lives is the aforementioned Witch of Waste, and a living flame named Calcifer. Portals open to Sophie, and the world of fantasy whirls around her, charged with the intrusion of flying war machines, tar-like mud soldiers, and an enchanted evil queen, none of which is explained beyond much more than a hint, but the film speeds along, taking us for the ride.

The star of the film is the art direction, with its cluttered, complicated backgrounds, and the overwhelming castle of the title, which half-walks, half-floats, an amalgam of metal and wood, primeval hovels and Rube Goldbergian architectural absurdities, all manner of bipolar materials barely held together by some sort of sloppy wizardry. You can’t take your eyes off it whenever it appears, and the quality of the 1.85 image is so pristine it’s practically obscene. The colors, stressing subtle intrusions of pastel pinks and lavenders into the dark decadence of the castle interiors, is infinitely re-watchable. It almost compensates for the story difficulties. And at 119 minutes, there really shouldn’t have been any difficulties with the story.

Whether to go with English dubbing or Japanese with English subtitles is tricky. Unlike the marvelous MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (also available through Disney), for instance, none of the characters seem at all Asian in their rendering, so the language choice is all yours to make. I very much appreciated Christian Bale’s reading of Howl with the slow, breathy delivery of a young Clint Eastwood, and Lauren Bacall as the Witch of Waste sells her lines dearly. However, much as I loved him on that fateful Academy Award show when Jack Palance’s shenanigans had him rewriting half his material, Billy Crystal just doesn’t do it for me as Calcifer, the nervous flame. I preferred the more truculent Japanese voice actor in that role. So you’re going to have to watch it twice in order to get all the best vocal performances.

Two women read the protagonist’s dialogue, the elder being Jean Simmons, the younger, Emily Mortimer. And I don’t think it’s either of their faults, but I never found that character sympathetic, and that’s a major problem with the movie. Still, her journey was compelling enough, and there was so much sadness indirectly expressed in the film, just lingering around the frames, that I can’t help but wonder what Ms. Jones’ book was really about subtextually.

[To continue the debate on which soundtrack to utilize, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO further complicates the matter. In the new Disney release, we have the voice talents of the bright, precocious, and vastly skilled young actress Dakota Fanning (WAR OF THE WORLDS) and her sister. Who wouldn’t want to hear her take on the role.]

Particularly when it comes to film, there’s much cross-pollination from country to country. And just as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN sprang unabashedly from Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI, so HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, though perhaps not often as obviously, borrows from American classics such as THE WIZARD OF OZ. Witch of Waste/Wicked Witch of the West…a hopping scarecrow… Some of the references are up front and begging to be acknowledged, while others are less obtrusively stated.

As for the supplements, we are given a nice overview of the voice dubbing, witnessing Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Emily Mortimer, Blythe Danner, and Billy Crystal at work.
Another section is a hastily video-ed visit to Pixar by Miyazaki himself, delivering a gift of the phantasmagorical Bus-Cat-Head from TOTORO to John Lassiter, and later saying a few words (via translator) to the psyched audience at an early screening of the English language version of his film. A very fit, coiffed, bearded man, it’s a pleasure to finally put a face to the animation. On disc two, the film’s storyboards – two-toned and simple for the most part – are accompanied by the soundtrack.

Incidentally, in Japanese the young Wizard’s name is ‘Hauru’, not ‘Howl’. I would have preferred a different assignation in the English language version. The kid just isn’t a ‘Howl’. I don’t know if he’s a ‘Hauru’, but he’s definitely not a Howl.


Special Features:
2-disc set includes Storyboards, Interview with Pixar Studio Director Pete Docter, footage of Miyazaki’s visit to Pixar Animation Studios.

Directed and Written by Hayao Miyazaki.
From the Novel by Diana Wynne Jones.
Music by Joe Hisaishi.
Produced at Studio Ghibli.
English language voices: Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Billy Crystal.

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