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"Howl's Moving Castle" movie poster Howl's Moving Castle

Theatrical Release: June 10, 2005 / Running Time: 119 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

English Voice Cast: Jean Simmons (Grandma Sophie), Christian Bale (Howl), Lauren Bacall (Witch of the Waste), Blythe Danner (Madame Suliman), Emily Mortimer (Young Sophie), Josh Hutcherson (Markl), Billy Crystal (Calcifer), Jena Malone (Lettie), Daijiro Harada (Heen), Crispin Freeman (Turnip), Mark Silverman (King), Mari Devon (Honey), Liliana Mumy (Madge)

Japanese Voice Cast: Chieko Baisho (Sophie), Takuya Kimura (Howl), Akihiro Miwa (Witch of the Waste), Tatsuya Gashuin (Calcifer), Ryunosuke Kamiki (Markl), Mitsunori Isaki (Servant), Yo Oizumi (Prince), Akio Ôtsuka (King of Ingary)

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Howl's Moving Castle, the latest and supposedly last film from Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, is adapted from a 1986 fantasy novel of the same name by British author Diana Wynne Jones. Nonetheless, like the eight major films that he has previously directed, Howl's credits Miyazaki with penning the screenplay, putting this production in a tradition that has earned the attendance and adoration of countless moviegoers around the world.
In the fall of 2004, while Pixar Animation Studios' latest triumph The Incredibles was setting records and topping charts stateside and in several territories overseas, it was no match for Howl in Japan, where the film (titled Hauru no ugoku shiro) grossed more than $200 million.

In America, where Miyazaki's previous film Spirited Away was commended with the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature three years ago, Howl's Moving Castle was distributed by the local pioneers of animation, Walt Disney Studios. It was treated to release in both subtitled and dubbed formats, with the English language version co-directed by Pete Docter (the director of Monsters, Inc.) and executive-produced by John Lasseter (director of A Bug's Life and the two Toy Story films), both from the aforementioned Pixar. Not only did it not break records here, but the film never expanded beyond 202 theaters and did not even gross $5 million, ending up with less than half of what Spirited did.

That Howl's is based on a pre-existing piece of British literature distinguishes the film from Miyazaki's two prior works which both made their way to a number of American theaters in 1999 (Princess Mononoke) and 2002 (Spirited Away). However, it shares with those films many of the director's creative trademarks including fantastical elements, rich characters, emotional complexity, and an atypical narrative arc.

Sophie and Howl don't find walking on air obnoxious. Just a few moments ago, Sophie was 18. Now, this!

The protagonist of the film is a plain-looking 18-year-old girl named Sophie who works hard in a hat shop that was her father's when he was alive. Sophie's life seems fairly ordinary, even after a walk with a charming, mysterious stranger out of a potentially uncomfortable situation. But "ordinary" is not a fitting way to describe what happens to Sophie next. While working late one night after the shop's close, Sophie is visited by a large and obnoxious woman. Before Sophie can figure out just what's going on, she has been cursed by that woman, who many know as The Witch of the Waste.

Sophie is shocked to discover that the next time she sees herself, the mirror shows a 90-year-old woman. Such were the terms of the Witch's spell and part of the bargain is that Sophie cannot speak of her cursed plight. Now elderly and
without a clear solution to her problem, Sophie runs off from her family. For the transformed Sophie, standing upright poses challenge enough, but nonetheless she sets off on a quest for a new home.

In her journeys, Sophie encounters a compelling cast of characters. The first of these (and one of my favorites) is a mute scarecrow she dubs Turniphead for obvious reasons. With his help, she finds a place to stay, but it is the fabled moving castle of Howl, the enigmatic wizard who, legend has it, takes the hearts of young girls. Aboard his unique mobile home, Sophie takes on the position of cleaning lady and becoming a type of grandmother to the master, his apprentice Markl (who puts on a beard whenever someone comes to the door), and a fire demon named Calcifer who keeps the place running as long as he is kept lit. Clearly, Sophie's curse was her first encounter with magic, but it won't be her last as she is surrounded by unexplainable phenomena and living in a modest home which can instantly lead to one of four portals.

Calcifer, a fire demon whose survival is linked to Howl, is voiced by Billy Crystal in the English language version. The title domain: Howl's Moving Castle.

Howl's Moving Castle may not be Miyazaki's most emotionally affecting film, but along with the fantasy, there is again a sophisticated humanity on display. The handful of central personalities come to life not with catchphrases or pop culture references, but with genuine character - flair, flaws, and unexpected power. The story is enhanced with lush, atmospheric imagery and an evocative score by Miyazaki's regular collaborator Joe Hisaishi. The film is dripping with imagination. Though it takes place in an unclear time and location and may seem irrelevant to your life, you cannot help but find yourself taken in by the plights of the various characters, especially Sophie, who has your sympathy from the start.

As usual, the Disney-supervised dubbing illustrates some highly inspired casting choices. Christian Bale, recently given a most prominent showcase as Batman, gives the lanky and slightly vain Howl an air similar to the Gotham superhero: powerful but mysterious. Long-time screen legends Jean Simmons and Lauren Bacall lend their voices to the film's cursed heroine and her curser, respectively. Emily Mortimer plays the young Sophie, and her lines of dialogue are seamlessly matched with Simmons's. While Bacall's Witch of the Waste cannot cleanly be referred to as "the villain", she's easy to dislike, a grotesque blob of a woman who becomes more hideous as the film progresses. (Her henchmen, amorphous beings who dress in Willy Wonka's purple suits, are another story altogether.) As Calcifer, the eggshell-eating fire demon, Billy Crystal delivers a few lines with his trademark mock-frustration, but like the rest of the cast, his primary interest is in serving his character rather than getting laughs from his usual persona; as such, there's nary a hint of Mike Wazowski in there.

Howl's Moving Castle is a magnetic and engulfing work. Accordingly, its shortcomings are hard to pinpoint even when they are felt. At one minute shy of two hours, the film definitely does feel a bit bloated, lingering for instance on a fun, but minimally important slow stair-climbing and a bit too much on Heen, the comic wheezy dog. Still, there is consistently a lot going on, from the vague war going on that Howl wants nothing to do with to the internal dilemmas that each character is grappling with. Like most of Miyazaki's past works, despite its richness, this film does not pander to audiences, instead requiring deduction and participation, and seemingly not out of laziness or creative voids.

Markl tries to make Turnip useful, while Heen wheezes on. Miyazaki seems to like characters who can become bird-like.

A number of Miyazaki's films are marked by anomalies which puzzle at least Western viewers (and probably plenty of Japanese folks too) and are widely left open to generous interpretation. Spirited Away is rich with examples, from Yubaba's gargantuan baby to the odd guest-eating patron No-Face. By contrast, Howl's Moving Castle is remarkably straightforward through its first half, I suspect, due to fidelity to its textual source. As the film progresses, questions are raised and not necessarily given a clean answer. For instance, what is the reasoning behind Sophie's fluctuation in appearance throughout the second half of the film? Surely, certain feelings she expresses or statement she makes cue a return to
the young-looking Sophie, but the transformation introduces some of the complexity which leaves Miyazaki's works (and to be fair, other Studio Ghibli films) ripe for discussion and multiple viewings, which do not fail to provide insight previously unnoticed.

In several ways, Howl's Moving Castle is reminiscent of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, though it has less humor and no musical numbers. The roles are slightly reversed, the potential romance is not quite an essential issue, and the silverware does not come to life. This is a visually compelling fairy tale told with Miyazaki's sensibilities and requiring active participation from the audience. By its very nature, that may divide Western audiences into the apathetic and the aroused. Critics took the film and it was nominated in the Academy category which disqualifies animated films from ever getting the type of due they might deserve. On the other hand, the public at large never demanded Howl's expand beyond limited release. For a good idea of where you'll stand, if you're interested enough to read this far into the review and still care, give it a shot. It's highly unlikely that you won't find any element which works for you, so long as you consider thinking as part of the movie viewing process.

Buy Howl's Moving Castle: 2-Disc DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (Japanese, English, French)
Subtitles: English, English captions;
Closed Captioned
DVD Release date: March 7, 2006
Two single-sided discs (DVD-9 & DVD-5)
Suggested retail price: $29.99
Black Keepcase with Side Snaps and Cardboard Slipcover

VIDEO and AUDIO

The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is, unsurprisingly, a lovely sight to behold. The film's visuals are among its strengths. The lush, detailed background imagery and an unusual color palette marked by bright greens and blues both are conveyed with nary a flaw. Sharpness and contrast are excellent, edge enhancement was not detected, and the element is perfectly pristine. In short, the picture quality is top-notch.

Whether you choose to listen to the original Japanese soundtrack or the Disney/Pixar-supervised English dub, you're in for a real treat. Both are offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 and both are terrific. Howl's boasts some expert sound design and the disc's robust tracks soar like few others. Between Joe Hisaishi's repetitive but pleasant score to wide range of sound effects, the audio envelops you with remarkable fidelity and limitless potency. The mixes offer no shortage of reference scenes; from the opening gusts of wind to a couple of instances of rainfall, from creaky mechanical movement to airborne explosions. It's all here. This stellar presentation delivers great bass and wonderful directionality. A French dub is also offered in Dolby Digital 5.1. As usual, only two subtitle tracks are offered: one which captions the English dub's dialogue and one which offers a more literal/precise translation of the original Japanese script.

Billy Crystal takes long distance direction from English language executive producer John Lasseter in "Behind the Microphone." English director Pete Docter gives an interview. Two modern-day animation legends, Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter, share a warm meeting in "Hello Mr. Lasseter."

BONUS FEATURES

The bonus material on Disney's releases of Studio Ghibli's films adhere to a formula more closely than any other class of DVDs I can think of. The three staples which have graced almost all of the Japanese animation house's Region 1 DVDs are indeed here, though at least they are accompanied by two non-standard supplements.

Featurettes on the English voice cast have accompanied nearly every one of Disney's Ghibli DVDs, but somehow they always remain interesting and never feel like a retread. This "Behind the Microphone" piece (9 minutes) starts off especially promising, as we get a candid look at the three-beep recording process. It proceeds with clips from the studio sessions and interview remarks, both of which are edited so that basically all of the principal cast is briefly covered. Though the comments in admiration of Miyazaki's work sound familiar, the recognizable faces behind them are different from before. One can't help but experience some thrill in hearing from the voice actors and seeing their session footage aligned next to the cartoon character they embody.
Among those who appear are Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Josh Hutcherson, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, and Billy Crystal (who is shown being directed via video-connection by executive producer John Lasseter). Also showing up are English director Pete Docter, translation writers Cindy and Don Hewitt, and producer Rick Dempsey.

Next is an interview with Howl's English language director Pete Docter (7:20), the Pixar story man and director of Monsters, Inc.. Though the written questions and spoken introductions are in Japanese and not subtitled to English, the piece is easy to appreciate as merely the thoughts of one of the respectful dub's key figures. Docter recalls how he got the position, the elements and themes of the film that attracted him, his favorite characters and the challenges in casting them, and the differences between Pixar and Studio Ghibli. It's a neat piece that succinctly covers the ground you'd hope,

"Hello Mr. Lasseter" (16:26) is a neat extra documenting a surprise visit that Hayao Miyazaki made to Pixar Animation Studios in June 2005 for a screening of the English language version of Howl's. Miyazaki comes bearing gifts for his friend John Lasseter (including a life-sized head and legs of My Neighbor Totoro's catbus). Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki converse with Lasseter in the oh-so-cool looking and bustling Pixar lobby (via a skillful interpreter) before heading to the Emeryville, California CGI wizards' screening room. There, Miyazaki, Suzuki, Lasseter, and Pete Docter offer an anecdote-laced introduction to an audience of Pixar employees. The piece concludes with Lasseter in his incomparably cool office (which is filled to the brim with toys inspired by Pixar films, with a section devoted to Ghibli wares) giving a gush-heavy interview about Howl's, somewhat pertaining to the English version. The Japanese narration is subtitled. The occasionally poor sound quality and repetitiveness of this piece are easy to forgive, as this is definitely one of this (or any DVD) set's coolest bonuses.

Fulfilling another commonly-found Ghibli supplement staple, a 12-minute reel of Japanese trailers and TV ads for Howl's Moving Castle illustrate how the film was previewed in its homeland for its fall 2004 theatrical opening. Many of the promos employ no dialogue, only music and on-screen text, and it's interesting to see some of them take the DreamWorks route of using the voice actor names. Fortunately, English subtitles are offered as a choice. As usual, the inclusion of these marketing campaign elements is appreciated, though one wishes that the American trailer and TV spots were also preserved, something Disney rarely does for its present-day films. Altogether, there are 15 previews, each representing a chapter stop. The majority run 30 seconds or less, only three trailers run longer than 2 minutes a piece.

Last but not necessarily least is Disc 2's lone bonus: a complete 119-minute cut of the film in storyboard form, set to two-channel Surround versions of the final mixes in either English or Japanese. While this supplement enables Disney to proclaim this release as a "2-Disc Set" (which all but one of the "Disney" banner Ghiblis have been), I would have to imagine it's one that many won't find worth inserting the second disc for. Of course, some who find Miyazaki's meticulous planning process fascinating will probably celebrate its inclusion. But I must ask, do you know many people who are going to say, "Let's watch Howl's Moving Castle in black-and-tan pencil drawings!" on more than one occasion? Me neither. Still, it makes little sense to lament a bonus feature that doesn't waste disc space or raise the price tag.

This is not something you'd see in an American cartoon film ad. Like what you see? Pop in Disc 2 to watch all of "Howl's Moving Castle" look like this. The surprisingly simple Disc 1 Main Menu.

MENUS and PACKAGING

The 4x3 menus are entirely static and surprisingly simple down to the basic font employed. They feature colorful imagery from the film and excerpts from Joe Hisaishi's score, with the most memorable piece of music accompanying the Main and Scene Selection pages. The most interesting thing about these selection screens is that most of the cursors are little Totoros, the poster spirit for Studio Ghibli films.

Disc 1 opens with previews for the Studio Ghibli films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition, Cars, and Chicken Little. The second page of the Sneak Peeks menu holds additional promos for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and AirBuddies.

Packaged in a standard width black keepcase and housed in the all-important cardboard slipcover, Howl's deals three inserts: a double-sided scene selection list, a double-sided ad for the forthcoming DVD releases of Disney's two highest-grossing films of 2005, and a fold-open mini booklet promoting all the Ghibli films issued under the Disney banner and various publications tied to My Neighbor Totoro and Howl's.

Howl's wistful hilltop recollections leave Sophie looking younger than 90. It wouldn't be a Miyazaki movie if the characters didn't take to the air at least once.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Millions around the world have come to love the imaginative animated films of Hayao Miyazaki. The facts that Howl's Moving Castle wasn't his baby from the beginning and that it is adapted from a British novel only serve to make it more accessible to Western audiences, as does the commendable English language version overseen by Disney and Pixar. "Accessibility" may not delight all of Miyazaki's fans, for surely his unique and unusual approaches to storytelling contribute to his appeal. This group need not fear, though, because Howl's is a complex and compelling work very much bearing the Japanese auteur's imprint. Amidst the film's many layers is much openness for interpretation and a thought-provoking fantasy unlike much outside of the Ghibli canon. Though American moviegoers didn't take to this film and many might find it falls short of complete satisfaction, there is no doubt plenty about Howl's worth admiring, whether you are well-versed in Miyazaki or simply open to something unusual as far as modern conceptions of animation go.

Disney's two-disc DVD is not all that different from the treatment they gave earlier Ghibli films and that's largely a good thing. Not only are the picture and sound excellent, but their potency makes Howl's a good choice to showcase the impact of any home theater. With Japanese and English audio, plus English subtitles for each version, viewers in both camps of the subbed-vs.-dubbed debate should be pleased. The handful of bonus features offer a couple of the usual, limited-appeal items (Disc 2's storyboard cut, Disc 1's collection of Japanese trailers), as well as three solid featurettes which those who care about the English dub should really enjoy.

All things considered, Howl's merits a definite recommendation for fans of Studio Ghibli films. Those who have either written off or ignored the lot are encouraged to give them a chance. There's a reason that Ghibli works are celebrated by movie enthusiasts all over the globe and you owe it to yourself to expand your cinematic horizons with them. Howl's is not the film I'd recommend as the best bet for the uninitiated, but it is representative of Miyazaki's style as well as being one of his more palpable and affecting tales.

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Related Reviews
New to DVD: My Neighbor Totoro (1988) • Whisper of the Heart (1995) • The Shaggy Dog (1959) • Lady and the Tramp (1955)
From Director Hayao Miyazaki: Spirited Away (2001) • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) • Castle in the Sky (1986) • Porco Rosso (1992)
From Studio Ghibli: My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) • Pom Poko (1994) • The Cat Returns (2002)
2005 Disney Films: Pooh's Heffalump Movie • Valiant • Sky High • Herbie: Fully Loaded
Movies Featuring the English Voice Cast of Howl's Moving Castle:
Christian Bale: Newsies (1992) • The Prestige (2006) | Emily Mortimer: Dear Frankie (2005) | Josh Hutcherson: Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

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Reviewed March 7, 2006.