How many masterpieces does one filmmaker get in a lifetime? Is there a finite store of incredible genius that can be burned through? Too many careers show that maybe this is the case, and Quentin Tarantino has said that filmmaking is a young man’s game. And while he may not be working in exactly the kind of filmmaking that Tarantino is talking about, Hayao Miyazaki proves that statement completely and totally wrong. Far into his career, and well into his 60s, Miyazaki is still turning out films that, if they are not masterpieces come amazingly close.
His latest is Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones. It’s set in an unnamed European kingdom that is perched between magic and industry. It’s an advanced steam world, sort of like in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy – if Otomo was capable of making a film that was more interested in human beings than in blowing shit up. Young Sofi spends the day working in her late father’s hat shop until she bumps into the wizard Howl and he opens her life to magic. But he soon leaves, and she goes to return to her daily life – until the Witch of the Waste, a hugely fat glob of a woman who is in love with Howl and jealous of the attention Sofi got – turns her into an old hag. And a condition of the spell, of course, is that she can’t tell anyone about it.
Sofi leaves home to find Howl and his titular moving castle, a huge Baba Yaga-like structure made out of dozens of pieces of houses, mounted on huge chicken legs. Along the way she meets and befriends a scarecrow with a turnip for a head, but it doesn’t take her long to make it to the castle.
There she meets Howl’s apprentice, Markl, who conducts the wizard’s business in towns around the world (ingeniously, I must add) and Calcifer, the fire demon who powers the moving castle, and who has a strange connection to Howl. Sofi quickly becomes part of the household, bringing a woman’s touch as she cleans everything up.
Meanwhile, war rages in the outside world. It’s total war – the devastation is complete. The kings of various realms want to draft Howl (he’s known by different names in different kingdoms), but he’s scared to go to war. And when Sofi mixes up his hair care products and he goes from blonde to brunette, he’s too depressed…
Apparently Miyazaki picked up Howl’s when another director dropped out, but you’d have to have a better eye than I do to pick out the differences from his other films. The usual strong design sense is here, and no one can imbue inanimate objects with life the way that Miyazaki can. And the story is filled with beautiful, touching moments, and the kind of bizarre peacenik vibe that makes the biggest bad guy of the film suddenly change sides halfway through the movie because everyone feels bad for her. However the film started it has Miyazaki’s fingerprints all over it, and that’s great.
The war that is being waged in the mythical Europe in Howl’s has a frightening relevancy today. I don’t know if the war was always in the book, and how long ago (I imagine some time ago) this film went into production, so I imagine the war is not a statement on the current Iraq situation, but on all war. And there are few people better suited to talk about the effects of war – both waging it and being bombed in it – than the Japanese. Knowing the intensity of the firebombing of Tokyo, to say nothing of the atomic bombs, seeing the molten landscapes that are left of cities in this film gives you pause. It’s a serious image, not just one born out of goodie goodie feelings.
But the movie isn’t all war – there’s really little of it (although it does afford some thrilling action scenes). There’s also the love story between Sofi and Howl, which is obviously hampered by the fact that she appears to be a centenarian (even though he is likely just as old as she seems). There’s a real chemistry between the two, which is made more amazing by the fact that one of the greatest living actresses, 76 year old Jean Simmons (no KISS relation), plays Sofi while Bathunk Christian Bale plays Howl – and they’re never in the same room when recording this dialogue. Bale is actually great here – he has a sense of playfulness that you rarely get in his films anymore.
The rest of the voice cast is strong as well, and I found myself really enjoying Billy Crystal as Calcifer. I know, I know, but here’s the thing about Crystal: it helps when you can’t see what a little goblin he is aging into, and the format puts restrictions on him that help temper his hamminess. Anyway, hammy works for Calcifer.
Lauren Bacall is the Witch of the Waste, and she actually plays the role fairly straight – the Witch is unbelievably fat and it would have been easy to put on a “fat voice,” but Bacall just summons the years of living in her own to get everything across.
A lot of this greatness can be attributed to American director (and the guy behind Monsters, Inc) Pete Docter. This is the second Miyazaki that Pixar has done American voice direction for, and I actually think this is better than the excellent dub they did for Spirited Away. For the record, Disney is releasing this dubbed and subtitled. Good for them!
There’s something special about Miyazaki’s work, and it shines through in this film. I don’t even like cartoons, but I once again found myself completely enchanted by his lyrical imagery and charming characters. In many ways Howl’s is the strangest Miyazaki film I have seen; it often runs on soft, dream logic, and large parts of the plot are intuited by the audience rather than presented. Strangely, I think kids will eat that up – they’re looking less for a straight narrative so they can let the details wash over them in a way that makes it all make more sense.
Spirited Away made me cry, which Howl’s doesn’t do, and I think Spirited Away is the superior film overall, but Howl’s is still a magnificent piece of work. Decades from now Howl’s Moving Castle will be looked back at as a classic.
9.0 out of 10