Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: (English dub voice cast) Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Blythe Danner, Emily Mortimer
I must admit I've never read Diana Wynn Jones's original book of Howl's Moving Castle, but I don't think that fact lessened my enjoyment of the film. As you'll probably already know if you've read the rest of my site, I'm a big fan of Miyazaki's work. In fact, in the same way that other people get excited when the Lucasfilm logo comes up, it's got to the point that I find myself grinning like an idiot as soon as the Studio Ghibli logo with its crazy-looking cat appears on the big screen.
Why do I enjoy their work so much? It has a lot to do with the studio's forte, which is to tell fairy tales, and tell them well. The basic format in most of their stories is that the lead character has a magical experience and is changed (and usually healed) in the process. Miyazaki's previous film, Spirited Away, was the story of an introverted and isolated ten-year-old girl who, while moving house with her mother and father, finds herself in a mystical world where her family is threatened. Through an adventure, she learns to engage with the rest of the world and save her mother and father. The film featured wicked witches, enchanted babies, river gods and mysterious beings, but as a fairy tale it was treated thoughtfully and maturely. As you'd guess from its title, Spirited Away was a film that took place very explicitly out of the world. In contrast, Howl's Moving Castle - like Miyazaki's earlier work Princess Mononoke - takes place within the world, albeit in a very different place to our own.
Howl's Moving Castle has a similar plot where a young woman is encouraged to embrace life rather than shrinking from it. In the process, she finds true love and heals the lives of those around her. Explaining much more of the plot would give too much of the game away; part of the joy of watching the film is the way in which we discover the story, and the surprises with which we are presented, but in brief the protagonists live in what appears to be a middle-European country from the early part of the 20th century, with steam trains and quaint flying machines but with the added element of witches and wizards who roam the countryside nearby.
The scenery is lush, vibrant and shrouded in cloud - all produced in Miyazaki's rich, hand-drawn style. There is little CGI work in the film except for the Moving Castle itself, and as a result there's a naturalness to the film that is often lost in the more high-tech worlds usually depicted in Japanese anime. Above all else, here is an animator at absolutely the top of his game, producing nuanced and complex work that stands up to repeated viewing. Miyazaki has a sharp eye for behaviour and mannerisms, endowing even the most trivial of characters with their own distinct personalities. He has a wry sense of humour, too: one of the most endearing characters is a rather eccentric dog.
I saw the film in the dubbed version, so any perspective of plot or culture has to be filtered through a layer of language that, of necessity, distorts and blurs the director's original intent. Even if you've never seen a Japanese movie before, it soon becomes obvious that Japanese culture is very different to that of the West, and this lends an air of alienness to the film that, if anything, enhances the dramatic effect. The English language version has a hard task to perform, but luckily its production was the responsibility of Pixar Animation Studios. John Lasseter acted as executive producer, as he did with Spirited Away. John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki are friends, and Pixar have done great things in promoting his work in the west. I also noticed Pete (Monsters Inc) Docter's name on the credits. As a result, the English version is hip and funny, and the voice cast is spectacular. Christian Bale takes the role of the wizard Howl, Lauren Bacall is memorable as the wicked witch, Jean Simmons brilliantly plays the elderly Sophie, and Billy Crystal takes the role of the fire demon Calcifer and turns it up to eleven.
I've recommended the film to a number of families with small children, and they all loved it. At the same time, I've seen the film with a grown-up audience who also got a lot out of it. There are precious few films that you could make a statement like that about these days, and it should be celebrated. Go see it.
Chris's rating: Five Stars