Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) *available with English dub

Posted by on Dec 10, 2011 in Foreign | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Violence, war, demons, and all-out chaos.

This Hayao Miyazaki film once again introduces a magical male figure to lead a female protagonist, but you’ll likely find the castle of the film’s title to be the true centerpiece. The large, heavy, and noisy mass is slapped together with millions of gadgets, pulleys, extremities, and planks of scrap metal. It towers above the earth with stick-size legs that disprove physics as smoke billows from its nooks and crannies creating a path that stretches over miles of sky. It’s the most visually compelling of Miyazaki’s inventions in the movie, which mostly concentrates on adult themes and adds occasional eye candy for kids.

Unlike most of Miyazaki’s thought-provoking Howls3material, Howl’s roams away from Asian folklore and mythology, finding space in a European realm instead. In this case, Miyazaki chose a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, which dabbles in L. Frank Baum’s political fantasy The Wizard of Oz. In a lot of ways, describing Miyazaki’s stories can be like making sense of Dr. Seuss books for a 3 year-old, an even more convenient analogy given their similarities in commentary on war. Sophie (Emily Mortimer) makes hats in a suburban, working class home ruled by sisters and a mother who treat her like Cinderella. One day, she wanders outside only to run into a wizard named Howl (Christian Bale) and his nemesis the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall).

In a fit of jealous rage (because she digs Howl), the witch transforms Sophie into an old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). For the rest of the movie, wrinkled Sophie travels to Howl’s castle to work as a housekeeper and takes every chance she gets to beg him to transform her back. Joining her on the voyage is young Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and a bouncing scarecrow she calls Turniphead. But when Sophie discovers the castle, which moves between two warring countries in an area called the Waste Lands, things get far stranger.

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Howl’s slave Calcifer (Billy Crystal) is a fire demon who supplies the castle with necessary niceties such as warm water and mobility. Sophie is quite simply a stranger in the strangest of lands with an unstable wizard that can change identities (because wizards are all-powerful and stuff) and often turns into a giant bird. But despite Howl’s beautiful visage, he is plagued by the thought of being ugly. The weird plot begins to take shape, as does Howl, when the warring towns both call upon the wizard for service. When he disobeys and tries to take down both armies himself, let’s just say things spin out of control.

While not as ingenious as Spirited Away, nor as inspiring as My Neighbor Totoro, this Oscar-nominated piece of animation is still an emotional and enjoyable social commentary (closer in that respect to Princess Mononoke). In the traditions of Bohemian dogma, Howl encompasses themes of freedom, beauty, truth, and love. Plus it has a giant mechanical castle with a gaping mouth that’s run by a fire demon. What’s not to like?

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