"Well, one nice thing about getting old is that nothing surprises you anymore."
Set in a vaguely Victorian-era magic realism fantasyland where steam-powered flying military battleships routinely zip across the sky and witchcraft and wizardry are taken for granted by the general population, the story follows a young hatmaker named Sophie, a rather plain girl without much self-esteem. Having crossed paths with the notorious wizard Howl, a flashy but shallow playboy who literally sweeps her off her feet during what was meant to be a simple walk through town, Sophie soon winds up at the wrong end of a curse from Howl's nemesis, the devious Witch of the Waste. Transformed instantly into a 90-year-old crone, the pragmatic young girl quite surprisingly adapts to her new condition quickly, observing that she's still in pretty good shape and at least now her frumpy clothes suit her. Setting off in search of a way to break the spell, Sophie will again find herself in Howl's company, moving into his magical home and establishing herself as his cleaning lady. Much grander adventures are in store of course, including a great war between two kingdoms of the land, the Witch of the Waste's ploy to steal Howl's heart (in the quite literal sense), and a conspiracy involving the king's royal magician.
Despite being based on a British children's book from author Diana Wynne Jones, the film is clearly linked both stylistically and thematically to Miyazaki's previous works. In fact, in many ways it plays as a summation of most of his recurring ideas and themes. Like Chihiro, the protagonist of Spirited Away, Sophie is a girl who has not yet found her direction in life, and through her bizarre adventures must learn self-reliance and maturity. The story's setting recalls the Industrial Revolution playground of Castle in the Sky mixed with magical elements from Kiki's Delivery Service, as well as the environmental and anti-war messages from Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke. The director also finds time to pay homage once again to some of his favorite Western stories such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Common to all his films, Miyazaki creates endearing, multi-dimensional characters (even the villains) and unveils many wondrous visions that defy description.
The greatest joys in any Miyazaki film come from seeing his skewed imaginings brought to such vivid, detailed life. From the curious blob-men who seep through walls and chase Howl around town to the corpulent Witch of the Waste, whose tightly contained fat looks likes it will spill out over her clothes at any minute, the movie reveals layers upon layers of wonderfully cluttered design and fabulous grotesqueries. Chief among these is the title building, Howl's castle itself, a ramshackle structure cobbled together from bits of things found along the way and held together by sheer force of will. Propelled through the countryside on spindly chicken legs, with each mechanical movement the building aches and groans and sighs, becoming as much a character as any of the speaking roles. It is truly a sight to behold, and cherish, and study in detail with rapt attention and amazement.
Some critics have complained that the movie's story gets overwhelmed by its style. While I admit that the plotline sometimes seems too ambitious for its own good and some of the preachier anti-war messages feel shoehorned in, Hayao Miyazaki is a skilled storyteller who makes movies of uncommon intelligence and complexity. His films invite an audience of children with their magical sights but do not talk down to them, and leave adults with much to puzzle and ponder. The ending of the movie is particularly complicated, but not impenetrable, even if it takes a second viewing to fit all the pieces together. And with so many dazzling details to absorb, multiple visits to this world are more than welcome anyway. It's the type of film that asks an audience to step up to its level, rather than sinking down to theirs, which is a rare quality to be admired.
Capping a career that has given us some of the finest animated filmmaking ever produced, Howl's Moving Castle is another stunning triumph from Hayao Miyazaki. Should it indeed prove to be his final production, it deserves recognition as a quite worthy swan song.
Note that these Limited Edition discs are hard-coded for Region 3 NTSC playback and will require compatible equipment to operate.
This windowboxing strategy appears to be endorsed by Studio Ghibli. It's interesting to note that although Disney complied with such a presentation for Spirited Away, their Region 1 DVD release of Howl's Moving Castle fills the width of the DVD frame as it should.
In other respects, the video transfer on this Korean DVD is nice if not spectacular. The film has a palette of light, pastel colors that are reproduced accurately. What I found distracting is that foreground objects, especially facial features, are often soft in detail, even when the backgrounds of shots have a sharper focus. This is a minor complaint, however, and will really only be noticeable to the pickiest of viewers. The picture has none of the edge enhancement artifacts that plague the R1 release. Overall, it's a fine-looking disc.
The following images have been magnified to showcase the flaws in both DVD editions, the softness in the Region 3 disc and the edge enhancement in the Region 1 disc.
Getting past that, the Japanese DTS track is a little bright in character, but does have nice bass and aggressive surround usage in selected scenes. The majority of the movie has a restrained and subtle sense of envelopment. The musical score is reproduced well. This is perhaps not a demonstration-quality soundtrack, but it supports the movie adequately.
The disc does not contain the English dub prepared by Disney and Pixar for the United States release.
Optional English, Korean, or Japanese subtitles have been provided, and are presented in an unobtrusive, small white font. The English subtitles come from the same translation that was used for the movie's U.S. theatrical release, which plays very coherently in English even if some of the movie's more complex ideas are not conveyed as clearly as they might be. Then again, it's Miyazaki, so they were probably pretty obscure in the first place.
Only the movie itself is found on Disc 1, not any supplements. Disc 2, however, begins with a storyboard presentation of the film from start to finish. Using the angle button on the remote, you can switch back and forth between the storyboards and the finished animation. I've been told that some people find this fascinating, but personally it does nothing for me. The movie plays here in Japanese 2.0 audio with only Korean subtitles available, but I would imagine an English translation isn't terribly important for those who just want to study the artwork.
Next we have some character and filmmaker bios in Korean text, which isn't too exciting. Following this are a series of Studio Ghibli trailers for all of their productions up through and including Howl. The trailers may not have subtitles, but you really don't need them. Along the same lines are 11 minutes of Japanese TV spots and 4 minutes of Korean TV spots for Howl.
Getting into more English-friendly territory, we move on to a 7-minute Diana Wynne Jones interview. This segment has only Korean subtitles, but even though all of the questions are asked in Korean the author answers in English and you can easily get the gist of the whole conversation from her responses. Topics under discussion include what she liked about the movie and which scenes were entirely of Miyazaki's imagining. Similarly, the 7-minute Pete Docter interview has been transported from a Japanese press kit; the questions are in Japanese with only Korean subtitles but Docter's answers are all English. The very geeky Pixar filmmaker speaks about his work on the English-language dub track, which is not even included in this DVD set, so it's a wonder why the disc producers threw the interview in. Without any English is the 4-minute Japanese voice acting featurette. This is just footage of the actors reading their lines from the movie and goofing around, so the context is pretty clear even if the specific words are not translated.
Disc 3 begins with the 16-minute Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar featurette, which comes from the Japanese press kit. Only Korean subtitles are available for the Japanese narrator and Miyazaki's side of the conversation, but there is a translator present who repeats everything Miyazaki says into English, and the vast majority of the piece is devoted to John Lasseter of Pixar anyway. If you've seen any of the introductions Lasseter recorded for previous Disney DVD editions of Ghibli films, you know to expect him to spend most of his time gushing about what a genius Miyazaki is and pretending to be his best friend in the world.
Wrapping things up are a 20-minute animation featurette that is untranslated but mainly visual, the same string of Studio Ghibli trailers found on Disc 2, and an additional series of Studio Ghibli TV spots for all of their productions.
No ROM supplements have been included.
My wife's adverse reaction to the film notwithstanding, I personally believe that Howl's Moving Castle is one of master animator Hayao Miyazaki's finest achievements, and that anyone who appreciated his previous works will fall in love with this one too. Then again, I've been wrong about such things before, as my wife will gladly tell you.
I'm not a fan of the windowboxed video presentation, but it's only a minor annoyance in this otherwise terrific Limited Edition box set from Korea that contains a DTS soundtrack, some decent bonus features even for English speakers, and truly lovely packaging. This is a true film collectible, and as such rates the highest DVDTalk Collector's Series rating.