Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
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Teetering on the brink of war against an unnamed foe, the king has ordered all-out support from his wizards & witches. Despite the royal head sorceresss particular efforts to secure the help of star wizard Howl, hes not showing up.
A mans home is his castle. Howls home is a castle, a moving castle: it can rise & walk away on Howls whim. To make things difficult, Howls castle can transport him through dimensions as well as distances.
Maybe Howl has reasons for his dodginess. After all, the Witch of the Waste wants his heart. Her spies have been slinking from the Wastelands in search of his castle.
In a village where Howls castle has a portal, Sophie, at 18 the oldest of three sisters, is resigned to a life of toil in her stepmothers millinery. On the way to visit a sister, shes rescued from the harassment of a couple of bored guards by Howl.
Saving Sophie forces Howl out in the open. As minions of the Witch of the Waste begin to materialize, Howl has to pull something special out of his bag of tricks to escape and deposit Sophie safely at her sisters.
Though Sophie tries to shrug off the incident, contact with Howl changes her life. The jealous Witch of the Waste shows up at the hat shop & curses Sophie, turning her into a 90 year old. Knowing no one will recognize her as an old hag, Sophie splits town in search of Howl, hoping he can somehow lift the curse.
Thus begins Hauro no ugoku shiro, the 2004 anime from Japans famed Studio Ghibli. Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki loosely based his screenplay on British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Joness novel Howls Moving Castle (HMC). Loosely is the operative word due to Miyazakis additions to & omissions from Joness tale. At a private viewing he arranged for her, while acknowledging some major detours from her plot, Jones exuded enthusiasm for the project.
Satisfying the writer of the source material is tough enough. Fulfilling the ardent expectation of fans is infinitely trickier. From his beanbag at the 2005 Dubai International Film Festivals (DIFF) screening of HMC, this particular fan was occasionally found muttering, Hey, just like Sen.
Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (2001), of course, is Miyazakis Oscar-winning effort Spirited Away (SA), to date the highest grossing film in Japans box office. Not having read HMC, I cant tell what remained largely intact from Jones, & what Miyazaki added or amended. But I cant shake the sneaking suspicion that when adapting the story for screen, Miyazaki sometimes took the shortcut of shoehorning ideas from his prior projects into HMC.
E.g., the shadow creatures appearing at HMCs start couldve easily auditioned for SA. Howl has a second winged form, like Hakus flying dragon form, & both develop problems turning back to human. The bouncing scarecrows similar to Zenibas ambulatory lamp in SA. The homing ring Howl gives Sophie recalls the animated Goonies-cum-Raiders of the Lost Ark Castle in the Skys (CS) aetherium crystal. Howl rescues Sophie at HMCs outsetHaku saves Sen, Prince Ashitaka saves his village, Porco rescues the kids, Nausicaä saves Lord Yupa during the first acts of the relevant films. . .
Listing more parallels I see between HMC & Miyazakis previous worlds would snore you & risks leading you astray. HMC has new magic & (for Miyazaki) a new type of character: during most of HMC, the heroines a nonagenarian, 75-85 years older than his usual lead babes. But yes, shes sprinkled with Miyazakis trademark blend of sugar, cinnamon & chirizu, & she tackles obstacles by tapping a hidden inner resolve, finding friendship, loyalty & love on the way.
HMCs plot skillfully balances drama & tension with lighter moments of warmth, humor & plain downtime. It also infuses mystery into the concoction by taking its time to reveal some characters backgrounds. Viewers will need to pay attention, specially to flashbacks, to catch some plot nuances. Short attention span-ners have been warned!
Miyazakis fairytale masterpieces, with complex motivations defying character cataloging into good/evil slots, usually offer subtle morals left for its viewers leisurely discovery. However, HMCs anti-war message is often blunt. Wizards who shape shift to take part in the war will never turn back to human, the story warns. On seeing a badly damaged battleship, the query if its the enemys or one of ours is met with the Helleresque retort: What difference does it make?
Hisaishi Joes score adds to the tales emotional punch. American audiences mayve encountered his music in Kitano Takeshi films. Hisaishis been with Miyazaki from Nausicaä (1984). Its evolved into a symbiotic partnership: Hisaishi knows Miyazakis aims, & Miyazaki has confidence in his partners ideas.
The DIFF screened the English dub. Studio Ghibli fans may be justly wary of Disneys ulterior aims in securing global (except Asia) video, DVD & movie distribution rights to most of the studios releases (specially given Mickeys shamefully shoddy treatment of SA), but at least Disneys dubbing decently. Disney attracts talent: Tim Curry, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Egan, Dakota Fanning, Janeane Garofalo, Mark Hamill, Phil Hartman, Michael Keaton, Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, David Ogden Stiers, & Uma Thurman have contributed to previous Ghibli films.
Not a list to be sneezed at. HMC adds bonafide legends Lauren Bacall (whose Witch of the Waste elicited late laughs from DIFF viewers) & Jean Simmons (who endows old Sophie with a slow-burning optimism). Emily Mortimer voices young Sophie ably, barring a few mistalks.
I feel Mononoke Hime (MH) has the best English VO ensemble (Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver) among Miyazaki films. Overall, HMCs team doesnt disappoint, though Christian Bale lacks the combo of enigma & petulance required to voice the Peter-Pannish Howl. The standout voices come from 12-year-old Josh Hutcherson (as Howls young, slightly impatient apprentice Merkl, who must occasionally act as an aged dwarf) & Billy Crystal. Crystal had a gas as his fire demon Calcifer grumbles, coaxes, urges, surges; I was at times reminded of his Princess Bride character (PBs Cary Elwes & Mandy Patinkin have also done Ghibli VOs).
Normally, when watching foreign language films, I prefer subtitles to dub. But with Miyazaki features, I choose the dub first. I want to taste to the last drop the imaginational juices imbuing his stories & images. Its yummy stuff!
Images like Howls castle, a creation straight out of Miyazakis mind. Springing on spindly legs, somehow it defeats gravity despite clearly inadequate wings. Teeming with turrets, towers & porticos, its a splendid contraption inside & out. Cogs click, gears grind, steam blows as it clatters through the countryside (the loud sounds set some infants in the audience bawling). Parents should prepare for their childrens demands to move into a similar house.
Pangs of envy could assail parents too. Next time they slam the front door on a salesman or Jehovahs Witness, theyll want a dimension selection spinner on the door. College students with blitzed dorm rooms will crave Howls moving spell.
In terms of story appeal, one can argue about HMCs rank in the Miyazaki canon. Turning to the animation itself, I feel little scope for argument exists.
Since its inception, Studio Ghibli has continued to redefined animation qualityjust compare Nausicaäs dragonflies with their iridescent cousins in MH. Drawings have increased in detail: in an HMC outdoor scene, we can see the background mountain through Calcifers flame.
Miyazaki films have featured some intricate scenes that left me gaping. Some examples are SAs Yubaba tidying up her chamber, MHs forest spirit transforming, CSs Laputa crumbling & Nausicaäs Ohmu locomotion. Howls Matrix-like castle rearranging scene ranks up there with Miyazakis best visual sequences.
And Miyazaki films have featured some flitting flourishes that left me gasping. I love HMCs spectacular split-second sparkle of sun on running water. The beauty of sunlight glinting off the burnished copper skin of a high-altitude airship seen briefly through a gap in overcast skies beggars descriptionadequate adjectives simply arent available to do justice to the Miyazestic scene.
Sunlight flashing on airships last featured in Porco Rosso, and its this Miyazaki film for adults thats closest to HMCs themes. Also with an anti-war bent, a teen with the beacon of love sees through the heros shield of cynicism. Yes, its there in his other films, but maybe Miyazaki feels the message to seek beyond the superficial to find the actual person is worth repeating in our times.
Its clear the appetite for Miyazaki dishes remains unabated: HMC broke the Japanese box office opening weekend record. Despite the few niggles Ive mentioned, Howls Moving Castle will be another Miyazaki classic Ill return to again and again. Hes living proof that lightning rarely does strike the same place multiple times; for over a quarter century now hes been capturing lightning in his urn and releasing it slowly for our enjoyment.
The t-pinin proper is over, the rest is just fan(atic) commentary. Please scroll to the links at the end.
I wonder how much lightning remains. Miyazaki passed his 65th winter during January 2006. If youve seen the SA DVD extras, then you know of his extremely involved directorial style. After MH, he lamented he could no longer maintain such a high level of involvement. Then, of course, he came out with SA.
Though Miyazaki wrote the screenplay for HMC, he agreed to direct only after the ideas of original directorial choice Mamoru Hosoda (of Digimon fame) failed to satisfy. Taking on the project potentially robbed Hayao Miyazaki fans of a tasty treat.
See, another fantasy writer agreed to let him adapt for an animation a world of her creation. Visually, I can see why this project excited Miyazaki. From the Gontish peaks to the labyrinthine tombs of Atuan, a world of powerful mages where humans & dragons are two sides of the same coin is obviously alluring to Miyazaki. Perhaps he relished the challenge of portraying the internal war between the heros ambition & aptitude.
But commitments to the HMC project forced Miyazaki to shunt Ursula K. Le Guins Earthsea to the backburner, from where it has been sniped by his son Goro for his directorial debut, reportedly resulting in a father/son rift. Under the intense dual pressure of the falling-out with his father & the weight of expectations simply from being his famous fathers son, I wonder how Gedo Senki (Geds War Chronicle) will turn out. Goros pronouncement has been to judge him on the final product. Fair enough.
So where does that leave Hayao Miyazaki? If hes in the adaptation mode, I would love to see him repay Neil Gaimans adaptation of MH for English viewers by animating Gaimans Stardust, but thats unlikely with a live-action version in the offing. Of course, another novel magical world from him would be even more welcome. It may be time for Studio Ghiblis longtime producer Suzuki to throw considerations of potential box office appeal to the winds & let Miyazaki work on the Boro the caterpillar concept (see Nausicaä DVD specials).
The question is, does Hayao Miyazaki have enough fairy dust left in his pouch, are there any sparks left in the urn for one last wave of the wand?
Decent Factory: documentary
Howl's Moving Castle: anime
Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World: comedy
Studio Ghibli fansite: http://www.nausicaa.net
Disney HMC site: http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/castle
Internet Movie Database: http://us.imdb.com
Miyazaki epinions: Havent seen any Miyazaki? Hie thee thither! Your kids, both inner & outer, will thank you
Hotaru No Haka (Grave of the Fireflies): WARNING! Danger of reduction to tears! From Studio Ghiblis Isao Takahata
The Point: a family-friendly musical animation with a point to make about diversity; Ringo Starr narrates!
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I hope you enjoyed the time you spent in getting to this point of my analysis. Without your comments, this epinion is unfinished.
12.15.05, 01.12-20.06, 01.24-8
Added links to other DIFF t-pinins
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Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12