Karen Hitches a Ride on Howl's Moving Castle!

by Karen Gsteiger

(mild spoilers)

If there is what one would call a "Hayao Miyazaki bandwagon," then I am a relatively late joiner. Having been introduced to Princess Mononoke by my friend Chris, I was immediately struck by the rich detail and intense beauty of his animation. This is going to sound super-cheesy, but I truly feel that every frame of his films is infused with love and pride, a quality you're not likely to see in most throwaway Hollywood movies (let alone the animation genre).

In Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Porco Rosso (the Miyazaki films I have currently seen), he creates characters with complex motivations and almost always a fundamental goodness and decency. I'm trying hard to think of a character who embodies "pure evil" and am coming up blank. In Miyazaki's movies, even the characters who appear at the outset to be villains have their good side, their reasons, the childlike joys and insecurities behind their selfish acts. The ruthless industrialist Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, for example, who tenderly cares for the lepers in her city. The monstrous, greedy No-Face in Spirited Away who is lonely and in need of a friend. Mr. Curtis in Porco Rosso who is more comic relief than a serious romantic rival.

There is also a profound love and respect for nature, based on Japanese myth, folklore, and religion, but Miyazaki's work never comes off as simplistic or preachy. He understands and conveys the complexities of humans coexisting with nature, especially in Princess Mononoke. People have genuine needs as they struggle to survive, but as humans thrive, nature dies.

Miyazaki films are not what I would immediately classify as "suitable for children." There is often graphic violence portrayed or sometimes the films are just straight-up disturbingly surreal. I don't know. I guess it depends on the individual child. I think that there are highly intelligent and mature children who would really dig a film like Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle (which I promise I will address presently), but at the same time, don't take your three-year-old to a Miyazaki movie just because it's animated. Save yourself a headache and your kid a nightmare and do some research!

Anyhoo...on to Howl's Moving Castle.

I found this film to be highly enjoyable, and I was not disappointed. A brief plot synopsis without giving too much away: Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the film introduces us to Sophie, an overly responsible teenage girl working in a hat shop, who is literally swept off her feet by the wizard Howl (a glam rockstar type who is rumored to eat pretty girls). The jealous Wicked Witch of the Waste turns Sophie into a 90-year-old woman via a curse, and the prematurely aged girl sets off to try to undo the spell. She finds herself working at the eponymous moving castle as a cleaning lady and befriends Howl's apprentice, Markl, and the fire demon, Calcifer, who keeps the castle up and running. Meanwhile, there's a war going on (over a missing prince, as I recall), and Howl is trying his best to avoid enlistment. Howl and Sophie have some chemistry, but Howl too is cursed--with depressions that are depicted in an extremely inventive manner and cowardice. I'll let you see how it all plays out in the end for yourself. Suffice to say that all of Miyazaki's strengths can be found in this work as well.

Visually, the film is gorgeous to look at. I love Miyazaki's lush, detailed backgrounds. One is not meant to pay so much attention to the glittering toys and tchotchkes embedded in the walls and ceilings of Howl's bedroom, but they make those scenes unforgettable and magical. The castle itself is a marvel, if not so structurally sound--an intricate Frankenstein-like walking home that is constructed out of what appears to be several other buildings (including some small houses) among other spare parts. The corpulent Wicked Witch of the Waste makes an impression with her quadruple or quintuple chins. (Howl himself is pretty easy on the eyes--for an animated character--even if he dresses a little Carson Kressley.)

The story is engaging, even if the politics are a little vague. It's not as complex or dark as either Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but the film does deal with the futility and waste of warfare, a most pertinent topic.

The unfortunate thing about seeing Miyazaki movies in the U.S. in theaters is that you have to deal with the celebrity voice actors. This one is better than most--Christian Bale does a good job as Howl, and Jean Simmons is a treat as aged Sophie. The only jarring voice is Billy Crystal as Calcifer, not because he's particularly bad or anything, but because you can't forget that he's totally, totally Billy Crystal. Can't wait for the DVD with the subtitles!

So go see Howl's Moving Castle while it's in theaters. I'd end this on a stronger note, but I've written 90 percent of this review with a headache and nausea...bet you couldn't tell! (You can't say that I'm not devoted to all three of my readers.)