In a Nutshell: Miyazaki's
best film to date.
It seems that every generation has an artist who takes animation to
the next level. Cartoonist Windsor McCay showing how artful animation
could be with his hand drawn shorts and set the standard of animation excellence
for decades. Walt Disney proved that animation can be used for more
than comedy shorts and launched the feature length animated film.
In this generation Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki expands animation once
again, creating gorgeous and wonderfully inventive movies that are enjoyed
by both children and adults alike. At the helm of such classics as
Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery
Service, and Princess Mononoke, he has been responsible for
some of the best animation to ever be filmed. One of his best works
was 2001's Spirited Away which won countless awards including the
Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and received accolades from both
film critics and the general populace. As amazing as it seems, his
follow up feature, Howl's Moving Castle, is even better. Though
it's not yet available in region one, there is a region two edition of
this fantastic film and it's well worth importing.
One of the few projects that Miyazaki has adapted from another's work,
Howl's Moving Castle is based on a children's book by Welsh author
Diana Wynne Jones. That shouldn't scare you away though, Miyazaki
infuses the story with his own imagination and creative spirit and creates
a film that meshes well with the others that he's done.
The film centers around Sophie, a young lady who works in her mother's
hat shop. She's shy and not too confident in herself, but enjoys
her work. One day while walking home she is rescued from some drunken
soldiers by a dashing young man, Howl. He's being chased my some
eerie creatures, and by association so is Sophie, but Howl manages to give
them the slip with a bit of magic. He takes Sophie home and bids
her good day.
That evening though, someone enters Sophie's shop and demands to know
where Howl is hiding. It's the Witch of the Waste, and evil sorceress
who wants nothing less than Howl's heart. Sophie has no idea where
the young man is, of course, so she is cursed. The Witch turns Sophie
into an old woman, and part of the curse is that she can't tell anyone
she's under a spell.
Determined to reverse the effect, old Sophie travels to the Wastes and
runs into Howl's ambulatory castle. She manages to hop on and climb
in. There she meets Calcipher, the fire demon who is bound to Howl
be some contract or spell and runs the castle, Markl a young boy and Howl's
apprentice, and eventually sees Howl again. She inserts herself into
their household as a maid and almost without realizing it falls in love
with Howl. But could a handsome and powerful magician like Howl ever
love a wrinkled old hag like Sophie?
If I had to pick one adjective to describe this film it would be "astounding."
Not only are the visuals stunning, the opening scene with Howl's castle
walking across the fog shrouded countryside is amazing, but the story is
very well crafted too. The story arc is well thought out, with each
scene being interesting in its own way. There wasn't any point in
this two hour movie that I was bored or thought that the film was being
padded. Each scene seemed to be important or interesting.
Another aspect of the script is that it is very rich and full.
There are a lot of little details, such as the cause of the war that takes
place in the film, that are thrown out so causally that many people will
miss them, but have important consequences later on. That gives the
film a lot of replay value.
Miyazaki has often been called the Japanese Disney, but it's really
not an accurate comparison. Miyazaki has built upon the groundwork
that Disney laid and his films are very different, both in style and content
to Disney's films. One of the biggest differences is characterization.
Disney cast his characters in fixed roles; the wicked witch was always
bad, and Prince Charming was good and pure all the time. Miyazaki
doesn't lock his characters into such narrow (and unrealistic) stereotypes.
They flow and change as the movie progresses, and a handsome and virile
young magician may turn out to have a vain streak or a monster hidden inside
of him. Or both. The wicked witch may be a harmless old lady.
Not only does the main character progress and grow as a person, many of
the supporting characters do to. It's this ebb and flow that makes
Miyazaki's films, this one in particular, so enjoyable for adults.
Though this was adapted from a children's book, I would have thought
that Miyazaki wrote it if I didn't know better. This film has all
of the traits and plot elements that we've come to expect from a Miyazaki
film. It has a shy young girl who has to learn to rely on herself,
amazing flights through the sky and a strong antiwar message.
Like his other films, this one is achingly beautiful too. It is
filled with simply gorgeous landscapes, colorful and detailed backgrounds
as well as unique and creative designs that will astound and impress even
the most jaded viewers. In this day of CGI special effects where
just about anything you can think of can be put on screen in a realistic
fashion, Hayao Miyazaki's cartoons continue to be very strong visually
because he puts things on the screen that you can't imagine. Howl's
castle, the flying battle ships and even the Witch of the Waste herself
are all interesting and unusual images that are unique to this film.
The only real complaint I have is that the ending of the movie is a
little bit rushed. The conclusion of the war, and Howl's problems
that were associated with the conflict was wrapped up very quickly.
I would have been happy had the film lasted another half an hour, but I
can see where that wouldn't have been practical. I did enjoy that
seemingly ambiguous ending. It actually makes a lot of sense if you
think about it, and was the perfect way to end a wonderful film.
This film comes on two DVDs with the feature on the first disc and the
bonus material on the second. The these are presented in a single
width keepcase with an extra page for the second disc. This is coded
for Region 2, and the menus are all in Japanese, though this doesn't make
it hard to navigate.
For a region 2 release, I was surprised to discover that this film has
an English soundtrack in addition to the original Japanese. Both
of these are in DD 6.1 EX. A third soundtrack is in French, but that
one is only in stereo. I viewed this in the original language (with English subs) but
also watched extended scenes in English. (I was only planning on
only spot checking the dub but I discovered that once I started it, I wanted
to watch most of the film again.) The dub is excellent, with a lot
of top talent giving their voices to the characters. Billy Crystal
plays Calcifer, Lauren Bacall voices the Witch of the Waste, and Christian
Bale is Howl, among others. The English voice talent did an all around
wonderful job, they really managed to bring the characters to life.
The disc sounded very good. Not only are the battle scenes impressive,
but the more sedate parts of the movie also sound excellent. The
soundtrack doesn't collapse to a stereo mix after the action is over, there
continues to be music and slight sound effects coming from all of the speakers.
The creaking sounds of Howl's castle as it moves across the countryside
add a lot of the feel of the film, and the sounds of bugs and birds in
Howl's private meadow also engulf the viewer. I was very impressed
with the way this disc sounded. Of course, there are no audio defects.
The 1.78:1 widescreen image is anamorphically enhanced and also window-boxed,
which I was a little surprised to see. This means that there are
black bars on both sides in addition to the bars on the top and bottom.
While this is a bit unusual, it does ensure that your are seeing the entire
picture. The presentation was first rate though. The video
quality was absolutely stellar. Colors were bright and strong, the
blacks were solid, and the lines were very sharp. The level of detail
in the dark shadow's of Howl's castle was excellent too. On the digital
side things looked equally impressive. There wasn't a hint of aliasing,
something that often plagues animation. Banding, cross colorization,
low level noise and other digital and compression artefacts were all absent.
A reference level disc.
There are only a few bonus items and they are all included on the second
disc. The main extra is the entire movie presented in storyboard
form. There is a multi-angle feature that allows the viewer to switch
to the finished product and back. This was interesting, but I don't
know that I'll ever watch this all the way through. There are no
subtitles or dub tracks on this version of the film. Aside
from that, the only other extra material are two sets of trailers for other
Studio Ghibli productions.
Howl's Moving Castle is an intimate portrait of a young girl
trapped in an old body who experiences her first love and a grand epic
adventure at the same time. Miyazaki has the rare ability to make
a large scale film seem small and personal, and he uses that ability to
great affect in this movie. A vastly enjoyable film, this movie is
also lovely to look at; the images and colors that are painted on the screen
are simply beautiful. I've enjoyed all of Miyazaki's films, but this
one is his best yet and deserves to be in the DVD Talk Collector Series.