FILM REVIEW: HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Hayao Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle" is a great animated feature - and one made, obviously, as much for older audiences as very young ones. But this wondrous movie probably shouldn't be put in age brackets at all. It's perfect for anyone with a youthful heart and a rich imagination.
Though highly reminiscent of the whimsical Japanese genius' last two films, 1997's "Princess Mononoke" and 2001's "Spirited Away," it's even more densely virtuosic. This new film transports us to a land of British wizards, witches and radiant countryside - with more wit and artistry, feeling and warmth than the entire Harry Potter movie series. At its best, "Howl" suggests "Alice in Wonderland" crossed with "The Wizard of Oz" and Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" - a tale of a plucky little girl who enters a world of wonders, realized with such an astonishing mix of humor, imagination and visual grandeur that a lot of it takes your breath away.
The film is adapted from Diana Wynne Jones' 2000 novel about a teenage girl, Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), who works in her late father's hat shop in a British port town that vaguely resembles the French region Alsace. The movie begins with a deceptively casual, languorous air, as if it were a cartoon version of Jane Austen. The city is idyllic, the ocean picturesque, and young Sophie falls in love with a handsome wizard, Howl (Christian Bale), who rescues her from boorish local troopers.
But when Howl swoops Sophie into the air and above the clouds, and when we later encounter a mysterious door that opens into four kingdoms, the magic begins to kick in - and Miyazaki conveys it with such joy and ease that we're swept right into his new world. Soon, danger enters poor Sophie's previously mundane life, and she's bewitched and turned into an elderly woman (voiced by Jean Simmons) by the vindictive, overdressed and weight-challenged Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). Against the frenzied turmoil of an ongoing air war - in which the king of Sophie's unnamed (but obviously British) country is trying to recruit all British magic-makers, including the reluctant Howl - the now-wizened Sophie flees to the country in search of youth or rescue.
What she does find is Howl's moving castle, an amazing contraption that is an intricate, bulging domicile on crane-like legs that wanders the countryside like a Victorian version of one of the war machines in "The Empire Strikes Back."
With old Sophie inside the castle are Turnip, a mute but endlessly helpful scarecrow, and Howl's crew: the resourceful boy Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and the smart-aleck talking fire Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal, playing the role he was born to play, with fiery wit). Pursuing them are the forces of the Witch of the Waste and the malicious minions of the king's honey-tongued minister, Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner).
"Howl's Moving Castle" is a pacifist/feminist war story. Miyazaki presents the war as a cruel joke, manipulated by powerful opportunists who don't give a damn about the orphans caught up in their storm. But Miyazaki also indulges all our appetites for fantasy adventure and action pyrotechnics and, in centering the story on Sophie, a young girl trapped in the body of an old woman, he makes a telling comment on the ways youth and age unite in a healthy personality.
When Sophie becomes old, her personality changes. No longer a sexual object (or target), she's now salty, candid, clear-thinking, generous, direct and wise - and it's implied that when she becomes young again, those traits will serve her well. The English-language version of "Howl" has been beautifully dubbed; perhaps the prize casting is Jean Simmons as the old Sophie. The onetime teenaged British beauty of 1949's "The Blue Lagoon" and 1946's "Great Expectations" brings out both youth and age in her role and makes them cozily interact.
"Howl's Moving Castle," a masterwork on many levels, confirms that Miyazaki is one of the most brilliant practitioners of the cartoon feature form ever. He's a cartoon artist who combines the great, hilarious popular touch of a Chuck Jones or an early Walt Disney with the penetrating imagination of avant-gardists such as Czechoslovakia's Jiri Trnka ("The Hand") and Jan Svankmajer ("Jabberwocky" and "Alice"). Miyazaki, who wrote and directed "Howl," is, at 62, in his prime right now, with his talents on full display here: his gift for creating living, beguiling characters and placing them with eerie believability against fanciful, spectacular fantasy backdrops.
"Howl" is a fascinating cultural hybrid. The early 20th-century villages and radiant landscapes Miyazaki and his crew create suggest classic book illustrations by artists like Tenniel, Cruikshank or E.H. Shepard, while summoning up a Britain embroiled in a fairy-tale World War I of zeppelins and airships. That storybook quality makes "Howl" seem doubly precious, the product of one vanishing art form - old-style illustration and classical hand-drawn movie animation - realized with the resources of the new digital techniques and lovingly shepherded for Miyazaki by the master of computer age cartoonery, Disney and Pixar's John "("Toy Story") Lasseter.
The visual style, though, is classic Japanese anime, made by the form's reigning master. Like the great old craftsmen of Japanese art and cinema, Miyazaki entrances us by the delicate mastery of his art, while knocking our socks off with action and spectacle. He gorges our imagination, awakens our minds and ignites our emotions, making a film all ages should enjoy and none should miss.
"Howl's Moving Castle" ("Hauru No Ugoku Shiro")
Directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki; based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones; music by Joe Hisaishi; produced by Toshio Suzuki, U.S. version executive-produced by John Lasseter; directors (English-language voice performances) Pete Docter and Rick Dempsey; English-language adaptation by Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt; translated from the original Japanese by Jim Hubbert; produced by Dempsey and Ned Lott. A Buena Vista Pictures release of a Studio Ghibli production. Opens Friday, June 10. Running time: 1:59. MPAA rating: PG (frightening images and brief mild language).
Grandma Sophie - Jean Simmons
Young Sophie - Emily Mortimer
Howl - Christian Bale
Witch of the Waste - Lauren Bacall
Calcifer - Billy Crystal
Markl - Josh Hutcherson
Madame Suliman - Blythe Danner