Take a Drink: when anyone transforms into anything else.
Take a Drink: when anything falls off of Howl’s Castle.
Take a Drink: whenever Calcifer is in danger of going out.
Do a Shot: when Howl’s hair changes color.
Finish Your Drink: when Lauren Bacall has reached peak fabulousness.
By: Sarah Shachat (Two Beers) –
Howl’s Moving Castle finds itself solidly middling in the trends of Hayao Mizayaki’s work. Its visuals build on the signature blending of hand-drawn cells and 3D rendering begun in Princess Mononoke; its plot centers on a young girl’s journey into a realm of strangeness and magic, not unlike the one in Spirited Away; and, within the whimsy, it slyly questions aspects of modernity and how we coexist with nature, as everything from Ponyo to Totoro does. The film isn’t superlative at any of these things, though it addresses them all credibly. Should you watch it? Legendary noir fatale Lauren Bacall voices a BAMF witch. There, now you’re sorted.
In case you do want more information: the trouble begins when Sophie, a young haberdasher in a steampunk, jingoistic nation on the brink of war (Wes Anderson raises an eyebrow), meets the wizard Howl. He’s known for stealing the hearts of pretty maidens, but his pass at Sophie is interrupted by the Witch of the Waste, who is after Howl’s own heart. Her minions make Sophie, and later that evening the Witch curses her to spend her days in the body of an old hag. Daunted but determined, Sophie seeks Howl out, and lands a gig as his housekeeper while she works out a way to break the curses on Howl, his mouthy flame demon Calcifer, and herself. Add in, like, a pseudo-First World War, the imposing mistress of the Wizards Guild out to control everything, and a bouncing scarecrow, and you have some of the charms of Howl’s Moving Castle.
Mist disperses to reveal a giant metal house, bouncing around on talons and striding across moorland, and the film opens. If that doesn’t spark your curiosity or tug a smile at the corner of your mouth, it’s also time to walk out. But it’s hard not to smile, because the animation of Howl’s Moving Castle is so wonderfully alive. Moment-to-moment, there is something marvelous in the frame. Sometimes it’s the tiny, clear details of the mis-en-scene, quivering, churning, or sparkling in the light. Sometimes it’s the painterly landscapes: the sun playing on water flanked by mountains, or the wind rushing through long grass, which looks the way cuddling feels. Sometimes it’s just the articulation of a character’s eyes, the play in brightness that articulates an emotion as clearly as any voice actor could.
But since we’re talking about the voice cast? If you choose to go with the dub version, it’s excellent. Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Billy Crystal, Jena Malone, Blythe Danner, baby Josh Hutcherson, and aforementioned goddess Lauren Bacall round it out. What’s even better is that, for the most part, they meld with their characters very well – there’s only one particularly self-conscious moment where Howl’s taken on a form which in hindsight evokes Bale’s major franchise role and his voice is pitched similarly as well. Billy Crystal remains Billy Crystal, of course, but as he’s playing a sentient fireball, his manner adds to the character’s personality without seeming overly referential.
The other real high mark for Howl is that the depth and detail in the world compliments the crisp, dynamic action. Whether that’s massive cleaning sessions or a bomb raid, how the characters move and work and solve problems is very frontal. It pops against the beauty of the backgrounds, but that beauty is still appreciable as well. It’s a delicate balance, and Miyazaki’s staging and composition are matched only by the inventiveness of his steampunk, pseudo-European setting. It’s really that aesthetic that sets Howl apart from the many traditions and generic elements it’s mixing.
What holds Howl back is a bit of a paradox. It has a very focused and present goal and yet a largely incidental structure – that is, we want Sophie to regain her youth, but this goal keeps getting complicated as she’s exposed to more magic and the larger machinations of the kingdom’s wizards. That in itself is often fine. But, there’s an abrupt quality to the development of the world, mussing up our understanding of the terms under which the characters operate, or distracting us from Sophie’s journey. Much like the walking castle itself, there’s a mad, mushy quality to the film – there’s a lot of themes, mood swings, and different generic elements swirling around in there and it takes effort to juggle them all. And that prevents the movie from being effortless, from being as magical as it ought to be. But that’s the major complaint. If Howl himself seems a bit inconsistent, Sophie’s inner reliance and compassion comes out quick enough to compensate. The family dynamics of the inhabitants of Howl’s Castle are sweet enough to make you forgive the idea of a witch not knowing what the deal is with her own spells.
Howl’s Moving Castle is transporting and entertaining in both the grand traditions of fairy-tales and Studio Ghibli. If it is also essentially a more conventionally romantic, less focused reimagining of Spirited Away, that is a small trouble for the gorgeous animation and great performances – both vocal and visual.