The last time Hayou Miyazaki brought a film to American audiences it was the critically acclaimed Spirited Away, a film so good it topped the list of animated and live action films of any genre that year. Unfortunately, the film, as beloved as it was, failed to set the box office aflame. And in this town, baby, money talks. Not only does it talk but it talks loudly, obnoxiously, drowning out all other voices in the vicinity.
It’s a good thing Miyazaki doesn’t judge his own success similarly and therefore appears not to have dumbed down his work with his latest, Howl’s Moving Castle. It is no Spirited Away, but few films are or ever will be. It is a magnificent journey nonetheless – as gloriously confusing as all of Miyazaki’s work – open to interpretation, but displaying the most breathtaking animation the medium has ever known.
Dubbed into English and overseen by Pixar, Howl’s Moving Castle, like all of Miyazaki’s movies, revolves around the struggles of a plucky, lonely girl who will find her inner strength one way or another by film’s end. Here, she begins as Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) a “plain” hat girl, one who doesn’t consider herself pretty enough to attract the attentions of a powerful man named Howl (voiced by Christian Bale), known for stealing the hearts of pretty girls. But one day on a walk, she finds herself a damsel in distress. She is rescued by a dashing, blonde haired man who teaches her how to fly, but he leaves her and she is once again thrust into her own nightmare. She is visited by the Witch of Waste (Lauren Bacall) who demands to buy a hat after the shop has closed. When Sophie refuses, the Witch of Waste puts a spell on her.
The once young Sophie is now a very old woman. Much to her own horror, she sets out on a journey to find the Witch and get her youth back. She hitches a ride on Howl’s Moving Castle, with the help of a silent, but surprisingly kind-hearted scarecrow. Like Chihiro in Spirited Away, Sophie is open to anyone and doesn’t judge based on appearance or even character flaws. Her conclusions about people are always based on kindness and compassion.
The Moving Castle is a large, huffing and puffing hunk of misshapen metal on legs – in keeping with the 19th century theme of the film, the Castle is bolts and metal with unexpected pockets of mystery, like the thing that keeps it going, an eternal flame named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal and the only character in the film who doesn’t quite fit) who attempts to provide comic relief to the situation. Howl himself comes and goes and is doing something pretty awful in his spare time. Evil forces threaten to overwhelm him. Both Sophie and Howl are susceptible to vanity, and, in Howl’s case, it is almost his undoing.
There is a war that must be stopped that Howl can end. Miyazaki has admitted that when he was making the film, American forces had invaded Iraq. In his own way, Miyazaki is voicing his disapproval, but in the film it becomes a generic anti-war message.
The beauty of the ideas behind the film – that beauty comes from within, that compassion is vital and that working together is far better than fighting – must compete with Miyazaki’s stunning animation. It’s tempting to just stare, mouth agape, at the loveliness of it all, particularly toward the end, when all of the plot contrivances are freed and it all comes down to the flutter of a young man’s heart and how it is stolen – and what he must then do to get it back.
Wizard of Oz themes are replete here – a Scarecrow, a little dog, and, of course, people going on great journeys to gain back what they’ve lost – Sophie’s youth, Howl’s heart, Calcifer’s flame. When it all comes to a spectacular end, the pieces end up in the right places, though everything has changed. Miyazaki’s films are about transitions – from one state to the next and all of the bone and gristle in between.As with most of Miyazaki’s work, the story doesn’t follow a linear pattern – it moves in a direction of its own choosing – as if it were being made up as it unfurls. In this case, the script is based on a book by British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones so the plot is already foretold, leaving Miyazaki some freedom with character and vivid display but with only partial control of the narrative. Thus, it isn’t one of Miyazaki’s best, but it is one of the best films to grace the big screen all year. Do not miss this one.