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Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Producers: Rick Dempsey, Ned Lott, Toshio Suzuki

Written by: Hayao Miyazaki, Diana Wynne Jones

Cast: Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Emily Mortimer


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 sentiments

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.

—Edward Rholes

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