Before I start my review of Hayao Miyazaki’s
Howl’s Moving Castle, let me say something about
the company that is distributing the stateside, Disney. Now I know
it’s fashionable to bash the corporate behemoth, but last
night I got an opportunity catch a glimpse of Disney’s latest
film, Chicken Little. Let me just say if you thought Disney
had hit rock bottom at some point wait till this thing is released.
Can’t we have at least one children’s film in America
where the characters aren’t making witless pop culture references?
From the smarmy pseudo-hip Disney to the almost defiantly quaint
work of Hayao Miyazaki is a hell of a transition. Though he has
yet to break through in the American market, Miyazaki is a phenomenon
in his native Japan, like his previous films Spirited Away
and Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle was a
blockbuster at home, earning more than 200 million. And like his
earlier films, Howl has the same gentle disarming charm to it, even
if it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, Miyazaki’s
masterpiece, Spirited Away.
Like Katsuhiro Otomo’s recent film Steamboy,
Howl’s Moving Castle is set in England, or at least a
fantasy version of England where enormous flying machines can coexist
with cobblestone streets and Victorian garb. It’s fascinating
to see how the Japanese imagination seems so oriented to the west.
Howl’s Moving Castle is about ordinary shop girl
named Sophie, who is magically transformed into an old woman by
a scheming witch. So she ventures out of town in search for cure,
and discovers Howl’s Moving Castle. The castle itself is really
the visual centerpiece of the film and it’s truly spectacular.
Powering the moving castle is a fire demon voiced by Billy
Crystal. I was expecting Crystal’s performance to
be a distraction, a lame attempt at pandering to American audiences
that are so used to wacky sidekicks voiced by celebrities, but to
my surprise Crystal’s performance was restrained and fit well
with the other characters. More startling than the performance of
the fire demon is its crude appearance, fire of course being the
bane of every animator’s existence.
The Castle belongs to the enigmatic young wizard Howl, who is
trying to avoid being drawn into a war that is ravishing the countryside.
Sophie and some of the house’s other colorful denizens must
save Howl and themselves. Not too surprisingly true love figure
into the ending of this fairy tale. The characters in Howl’s,
like the hand-drawn animation, may seem a bit anachronistic to modern
audiences. And honestly I found them a little overly earnest myself.
Like Disney, Miyazaki’s films are in danger of becoming too
formulaic. Plucky heroine, mysterious young hero, cute sidekicks—Miyazaki
has done this before and he’s done it better. Another problem
with his film is that Miyazaki is such a gentle soul that his films
really lack any kind of suspense: Even his villains are really sweethearts.
Needless to say the ending is quite saccharine, despite its anti-war
Despite its shortcomings Miyazaki’s films are always refreshing
and come off as all the more charming when compared to the increasingly
cynical kids’ films made in the United States.