A couple nights ago I went to see Howl's Moving Castle after work. I am lucky enough that Madison has elected to show the subtitled version with the original Japanese cast as opposed to Disney's dub-work. I was very very excited about seeing this film as I love Miyazaki's work. However, I came away from this film with mixed feelings.
The movie is based off a children's book of the same title by British author Diana Wynne Jones, and is the story of a young woman named Sophie who works as a hatter in a land torn by war. Sophie is clearly bored with her life but continues in her work out of dedication to her parent's memory. As she walks one day she encounters the wizard Howl, a young man who protects her from some soldiers and takes her into flight over her city as he himself attempts to escape the servants of the Witch of the Wastes.
For her trouble, the Witch of the Wastes casts a spell on Sophie turning into a ninety-year old woman, and further curses her making her unable to tell anyone of her plight. Knowing that she can no longer live her life in the city, Sophie goes alone into the Wastes in order to find a life, if not a cure. She takes up residence in Howl's home, a moving castle, part fueled by magic and partly by steam, both of which are controlled by a bound fire demon named Calcifer. Self-appointing herself the cleaning lady, she begins a life with Howl, who is also cursed to slowly become a winged beast, his apprentice Markl and an enchanted scarecrow devoted to her happiness.
Now, I have not read the book this film is based off of, so I cannot speak to how true the movie is the manuscript, but the kind heart of Miyazaki imbues every scene in this film. I found myself smiling and laughing in joy at his depictions of the characters and their reversals. Also, while it may seem out of place in a world of digitally-animated films, the strong reliance on beautifully hand-drawn art in order to subtly demonstrate pivotal transitions in characters and scenes serves to remind the audience that this traditional animation style is far from obsolete.
However, there are problems with this film. The movie is story-confused and certain sub-plots do not get adequately developed enough to justify their existence in the film. As a result, some of the character interaction (particularly at the end of the film) makes little sense, or comes as such a complete surprise that the revelation can render a scene ridiculous. It is almost as though Miyazaki was unsure what liberties he could afford to take with another artist's story, and as a result attempted to include everything even if it did not jive with the shape of the film.
In short, I caution viewers that this film is Miyazaki trying to do Diana Wynne Jones, and not a pure Miyazaki work. Howl's Moving Castle is certainly not up to same level as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, or My Neighbor Totoro, and as a result Miyazaki fans such as myself may walk away a little disappointed. However, on the whole it is still a fine family film and I do recommend it heartily over the competing processed-sugar film substitutes being marketed to family movie-goers.
Seen the movie? Agree/Disagree? Think I am full of it? Leave a comment!