Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Anime review: Howl's Moving Castle

Sophie is a girl who spends her days working at a hat shop. She leads a rather average life until one day she encounters the magician Howl, who is on the run from agents of the Witch of the Waste. After helping Howl get to safety, Sophie is turned into an elderly woman by the Witch of the Waste and decides to leave her home in order to try and have the curse reversed.

Eventually Sophie comes across a gigantic moving castle, cobbled together from portions of various buildings and supported by four thin legs. She enters to find it is powered by a fire demon named Calcifer who – despite his claims of greatness – is rather harmless. After meeting Calcifer and then Markl, Sophie is introduced once more to Howl who is the owner of the castle. Howl explains that the Witch of the Waste once convinced Howl to be her lover, but upon seeing her true form, Howl left. Thus, the Witch of the Waste decided that if she couldn’t have his heart then no one else could.

During her travels with Howl and his apprentice Markl, Sophie becomes the self-proclaimed housekeeper and mother figure. She spends a bit of time early on in the film cleaning up the castle and later on convinces Howl to get over a number of his temper-tantrums. A large focus of the story is put on Sophie’s romantic interest in Howl and the challenge she experiences in appearing so much older than him. As a main character, Sophie is very relatable and entertaining in subtle ways. Howl, on the other hand, is a notably weaker lead character with his immature nature. His eccentric personality does make up for this a bit, but the fact that he is absent for large portions of the film makes it difficult for viewers to grasp a firm idea of who Howl really is. Because of this, Calcifer and Markl shine through as more fully-developed characters.

Miyazaki caters to the child in everyone with whimsical elements including an enchanted scarecrow, a magical door leading to various locations, and Howl’s transformations. Some inclusions are throwbacks to some of Miyazaki’s older works, such as the giant military airships and the goop-bodied minions of the Witch of the Waste. Howl’s Moving Castle does play out as an anti-war piece and detracts the plot a small amount, but this is only touched on briefly.

There are a few plot elements that are never fully explained, such as where the black dial on the magic door actually leads to. It’s easy enough for viewers to assume that the black dial leads to Howl’s past, but this doesn’t seem to be consistent with its earlier appearances in the film. If this were meant to be left up to viewer speculation/interpretation, Miyazaki doesn’t do a very good job in expressing that, but at the same time such vagueness isn’t generally his style. It might just be my own personal nitpicking, but I feel that this, as well as few minor story bits, could have been better explained.

In contrast to the majority of the rest of the film, the conclusion is rather clumsy. After so much buildup and action, the story hits the brakes and goes back in time to explain Howl’s past, and then suddenly returns to present day where everything is hunky-dory. It’s almost as if Miyazaki had no real conclusion in mind and decided to combine portions from multiple endings he envisioned. In this regard, Howl’s Moving Castle has a notably weaker conclusion than many of the other Studio Ghibli films.

The art style is similar to many Studio Ghibli films before it, with a number of steam-powered vehicles and cartoony characters populating the film’s scenes. The lighting variation is phenomenal, though some of the background details seem a bit lacking at times. It might not be the most creative in terms of animation, but it’s certainly not overly weak in that regard either.

The English dub voice actors seem fitting to their respective roles for the most part, though Jean Simmons as Sophie and Christian Bale as Howl both seem to be talking too softly throughout the majority of the film. Lauren Bacall provides a fitting voice for the devious Witch of the Waste, despite the character’s minimal number of lines in the latter half of the film. Easily the best voice actor in the English dub, however, is Billy Crystal as Calcifer, whose trust issues fuel much of the comedic interaction with Sophie and the others.

There are few people who would honestly say there is such a thing as a bad Studio Ghibli film. Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantastic adventure for viewers of all ages. It does a wonderful job of balancing action with story, never letting go of viewers’ attention. That said, there are some technical issues that could have been worked out, particularly in the English dub, and the conclusion could have benefitted greatly from better cohesion.

My rating: 7.75 (out of 10)

1 comment:

  1. I felt that HOWL could have had a stronger ending as well, although I will confess that I did enjoy the film overall. And yeah, Billy Crystal was really good as Calcifer. I didn't mind the VAs for Howl and Sophie but I think they both spoke too softly as well.


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