STUDIO: Disney
MSRP: $29.99
RUNNING TIME: 119 Minutes
• "Behind the Microphone" featurette
• Interview with Pixar Animation Studios Director, Pete Docter
• "Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar Animation Studios" featurette
• TV spots and trailers
• Feature-length storyboard sequence

The Pitch

meets West in a colossal battle for cinema magic and coherency! Everybody

The Humans

track: Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Blythe
Danner. Japanese track: Chieko Baisho, Takuya Kimura, Akihiro Miwa.

"So shut up, ugly little girl, and eat your… cielogil…"

The Nutshell

Miyazaki, whose original stories include Spirited Away and Princess
, adapts a young adult novel from British author Diana Wynne
Jones. In it, a young girl named Sofie has an unfortunate run-in with a
powerful witch, who casts a spell which turns the girl into an old woman. Part
of the spell prohibits Sofie from telling anyone she’s cursed, and so she
wanders away from friends and family in search of a cure.

Out in
the wastes (which are actually quite pretty, in a pastoral way,) Sofie finds a
massive lumbering contraption which is home to the great wizard Howl and his
colorful cast of friends.

Then a
war happens, and someone double-crosses someone, and Howl moons about like a
teenage girl, and Sofie falls in love, and magic does some stuff and some other
stuff, and– you know what? Screw it. The whole narrative just falls apart into
barely-connected events after about the thirty-minute mark.

This is Alan Ginsberg’s Howl’s Moving Castle, in which the night never ends,
and the cry of the human soul echoes in the void.

The Lowdown

Put me
down as one who was charmed by the narrative liberties in the final act of Spirited
, but I just couldn’t stomach the disregard for fiction that
Miyazaki takes in Howl’s Moving Castle. The
characters progress with very little in the way of motivation. Sofie abandons
her life too quickly and with too high a humor; Howl flits about from task to
task like an epileptic budgie; and they aren’t even the worst of it.

The whole
story is set against a backdrop of a war between kingdoms. Massive airships
clash in the sky and firebomb villages. Wizards and witches turn themselves
into great beasts in service of their masters. Sounds exciting, and it looks
impressive, but there’s so little reason for it that it ends up only
contributing noise.

motivations are necessary, they are awkwardly injected right into the dialogue.
Declarations of love, of a history of bad blood, of magical connections all
come flying out of nowhere to keep the shuddering plot on its feet. The plot
reminds me of nothing more than Howl’s castle itself, a plodding, slapdash
affair that looks as if at any moment it might fall to pieces, and eventually

characters are all one-sided, mostly because they don’t have much of a conflict
to anchor to, or the conflict is ignored. Compare Sofie with Chihiro from Spirited
: Chihiro was driven by a number of conflict, all of which were in
service of her recovering her parents and returning home. Sofie, on the other
hand, should have a serious momentum that comes from her desire to return to
her original form, but it doesn’t come out in her actions or dialogue. She just
doesn’t seem to care. Instead of her driving the plot along, it works the other
way around.

I like my women like I like my fires: fat and sassy.

movies aren’t inherently bad, of course, but they do require coherency. The
world that the plot inhabits in Howl’s Moving Castle is never
explained to the audience’s satisfaction. How does magic work? Pretty much any
damn way we want, say the writers. What caused this war, and why does the
fighting go on? Well, a prince was kidnapped or cursed or killed or something,
and everybody holds a grudge, right? What the heck are those little guys that
look like will-o’-the-wisps? They’re magic. Ish. Magic-ish. If you eat them,
your heart squirts out.

audience is given no direction, no grounding in the world they’re supposed to
inhabit, so the events begin to wash over them like a lecture given in a
foreign language.

there’s enough in the way of scenery and population in this confusing world to
attract your eye. The animation is, as with all
Miyazaki releases, absolutely top-notch.
The attention to detail in the backgrounds, the subtle movements of the
characters, and the dazzling, almost Gilliam-esque castle itself are all of the
best seen in 2D animation.
Miyazaki and his team prove once again the
viability of the medium. It’s enthralling and beautiful, in the most mundane
sense of the word.

The audio
side of the production is praiseworthy, as well. The Japanese voice actors are
brilliant, drawing on a deeper sense of melodrama than we’re used to with our
American actors. The English language dub is filled with familiar voices, but
stumbles in a few places in trying to match the tone and timbre of the original
language. Christian Bale especially seems to have problems, punching certain
lines harder than necessary and letting others fall where they need to be
sustained. Jean Simmons as old-lady Sofie channels Suzanne Pleshette’s
performance as Yubaba and Zeniba from Spirited Away, and does a charming
job of melding Sofie’s youthful phrasing with an elderly tone.

Joe Hisaishi
provides the score, and it’s pitch-perfect as well. Like his work on Spirited
, Hisaishi does his best work in the moments of quiet character
interaction, when he gives a theme to a solo piano. He proves he’s capable of
more dramatic fare, though, during the scenes of combat and action, using a
whole orchestra to memorable effect.

What happens when Gumby gets a little too close to the fire.

technical aspects of Howl’s Moving Castle are all well
above average. It’s a shame that the artwork, sound design, and voice-acting
couldn’t have been put to service for a better story.
Miyazaki is a talented writer. His
original stories are captivating and focused, despite his occasional agendas
and too-tidy endings; he has proven less capable as an adaptor. There is a
feeble anti-war message deep within Howl’s Moving Castle, but it is sunk
beneath a mess of disconnected scenes, fizzled dialogues, and bad structure.

The film
reminds me of watching any live-action foreign film with an English dub, rather
than with subtitles. It’s a forceful mashing of the aspects of two distinct
cultures. When that happens the lips don’t move quite right, the voices feel
the wrong shape for the characters. Something at the back of your mind the
whole way through says, "There’s something wrong about this."

The Package

of the space required to cram three different 5.1 language tracks on a single
disc (Japanese, English, French,) the few bonus features Disney packaged along
with this release are stuck on a second disc. Most of Disney’s Ghibli releases
are packaged this way, but it hardly seems worth the effort, since the disc of
bonus features never has much of interest.

standard practice to include a brief documentary on the English-speaking voice
talent, and that’s present here. There are also a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes
involving director Hayao Miyazaki and Pixar Entertainment, and a
Miyazaki-loving interview with Pixar Animation Studios Director Pete Docter.
There’s also the original Japanese theatrical trailers, and a complete set of
storyboards set to the soundtrack. The storyboards are a nice feature of these
Ghibli discs, because you can see exactly how much preparation goes into the
construction of their animated releases. (Hint: It’s a hell of a lot.)


6.5 out of 10