"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.
The movie itself can be viewed in either its original Japanese-language soundtrack or an English dub prepared by Disney and Pixar. I recognize that dubbing is a necessary evil for animated films intended to be viewed by children who may not be able to follow a movie with subtitles, but I am resolutely not a fan of the process, the existence of which I find artistically bankrupt. Having disclosed that personal bias, I will say that the dub here is generally better than most I've suffered through. Pixar and Disney enlisted some A-list talent to provide the voices, including Lauren Bacall, Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Blythe Danner, and Billy Crystal. The new voices are usually timed close enough to the original lip movements, and the reworded dialogue is only awful in about half the lines, which is better than most dubs that are awful in every line. The females in the cast tend to do a decent job, especially Mortimer and Bacall, but the men I found less effective. Bale is just not right for the role of Howl, who he plays pretty much exactly the same way he played Batman, and Billy Crystal is simply obnoxious in every scene, his New Yawker performance so completely inappropriate it boggles the mind that John Lasseter of Pixar (who directed him through it) thought it was a good idea.
In other respects, the video transfer on this R1 DVD has both strengths and weaknesses. The film has a palette of light, pastel colors that are reproduced accurately. In comparison to the Region 3 Limited Edition DVD, the Disney disc is slightly sharper and more vivid in its colors and contrast range. The foreground softness that I found distracting in the R3 disc is not a problem on this DVD. Unfortunately, the Disney video transfer suffers from edge enhancement artifacts throughout the film, especially noticeable in facial close-ups, leaving much of the animation looking excessively edgy and electronic. Considering the progress other home video studios have made to stamp out edge ringing in recent DVDs, it's simply inexcusable that Disney can't seem to get beyond this problem.
The following images have been magnified to showcase the flaws in both DVD editions, the edge enhancement in the Region 1 disc and the softness in the Region 3 disc.
There are a lot of positive attributes to the Region 1 DVD, and on balance I'd put it about even with the Region 3 copy I've also seen, if only for the lack of annoying windowboxing, but I'm very disappointed that the image is marred by so much avoidable edge ringing.
Like some of their prior Ghibli releases, the Howl DVD can be viewed with either the original Japanese on-screen opening titles or the English text version, depending on which audio language option you choose in the disc menus.
Subtitles are available in either English or English for the Hearing Impaired, and are presented in a garish, large yellow font. They 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.
The only bonus feature exclusive to Region 1 is the 9-minute Behind the Microphone featurette. These things are usually promotional fluff, and this one isn't much different, but it does contain some interesting discussion about the difficulties of trying to dub a foreign film without looking like a bad chop-socky import from the '70s. Topics include the problem of maintaining an accurate translation while changing the word length to fit mouth movements, and the technology that can be used to adjust words syllable-by-syllable to fit the image.
Ported over from the Asian DVD releases are two featurettes. The 7-minute Interview with Pete Docter obviously comes from a Japanese press kit. In fact, as presented here Disney didn't even bother to provide English subtitles for the Japanese text or narration. The questions are in Japanese but of course Docter's answers are all English, and you can get the gist of the conversation from his side alone. The very geeky Pixar filmmaker speaks some more about his work on the English dub. After this comes the 16-minute Hello Mr. Miyazaki: Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar, also from the Japanese press kit. This time subtitles are available for the Japanese narrator and Miyazaki's side of the conversation, and there is also a translator present who repeats everything Miyazaki says into English. 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.
Disc 1 wraps up with 12 minutes of TV spots and trailers, all in Japanese with optional English subtitles. The subtitle translation is very poorly done here.
The only feature on Disc 2 is the storyboard presentation of the film from start to finish. I've been told that some people find this fascinating, but personally it does nothing for me. Unlike the Region 3 DVD, there is no option to switch angles between the storyboards and the finished artwork. Only the storyboards are shown. The movie can be played this way in either English or Japanese audio with optional English subtitles.
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. Nonetheless, in my eyes this DVD easily merits a Highly Recommended rating, for anyone who is not my wife, anyway.