Just as DVDs have come to replace VHS as the home entertainment format of choice, at the cinema computers have replaced drawing by hand as the animation format of choice. There are the occasional old school animated features released here and there but usually they are done on the cheap and are a far cry from the halcyon days of Bambi Fantasia or Beauty and the Beast.
But every time the dirt is about to be thrown on the creative coffin Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned Japanese animator of modern classics such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, comes up with an epic to keep the format alive just a little while longer. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro) is the animation master’s latest offering, and it is an oasis for fans of traditional, quality, animation cinema.
Loosely based on Diana Wynne Jones’ novel, Howl’s tells the tale of Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), an average teenage girl working in a hat shop, who finds her life thrown into turmoil when she is swept off her feet, literally, by a handsome-but-mysterious wizard named Howl (Christian Bale). Because of this, the vain and conniving Wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) turns Sophie into a 90-year-old woman (Jean Simmons).
Sophie attempts to lift the curse leads her to find refuge in Howl’s Moving Castle. There she meets Markl, Howl’s apprentice, and a fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal). Sophie’s presence has a major impact on Howl, who flies in the face of orders from the palace to become a pawn of war and risks his life to help bring peace to the kingdom.
All the Miyazaki trademarks are present: gorgeous country landscapes, sprawling cities reminiscent of 19th-century Europe, a strong female lead solidly backed by colorful supporting players; a welcome respect for elders (the ultimate proof that this was not made in Hollywood) and a fantastic musical score by longtime contributor Joe Hisaishi. Miyazaki fills his movie with such beautiful images and awe-inspiring imagination that it is easy to overlook the story’s convoluted conclusion.
Pixar Animation alumni Pete Doctor (Monsters, Inc.) was the dialogue director on the English dubbed release. I normally prefer films in their original language, but Doctor has done a fine job assembling and directing a very talented, predominantly English, cast. The one exception is Billy Crystal as Calcifer, whose Borscht Belt intrudes on the character.
That said, Howl’s is an ideal antidote to the recent wave of computer-animated frivolity, such as Shark Tale, Robots and Madagascar. While those films have relied on voice cast name recognition, instantly dated pop culture jokes and brainwashing assaults of hype, to make an impression on moviegoers and their wallets, Miyazaki uses story and character to connect with his audience. While Howl’s Moving Castle might fall short of Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, it remains a sophisticated, ingenious family film well worth your time, effort and money.