February 20, 2006
To fully understand the ironic position Howl's Moving Castle finds itself in at this year's Academy Awards, you have to go back to the 2003 Academy Awards. That was only the second year of the new Best Animated Feature Award with five nominees. Along with the big names of the year, Disney's Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet, there was Dreamworks' Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and the upstart Blue Sky Studio's Ice Age. Most of the speculation had centered on whether the Academy members would go with the breath of fresh air from Disney and vote for Lilo and Stitch or reward the smaller outside studio and vote for Ice Age. But the winner turned out to be the relatively obscure fifth nominee from Japan, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli's film Spirited Away. All across the country there were literally millions of viewers turning to one another and saying "Huh? Spirited Away? Wasn't that the one about the horse?"
Their puzzlement was not hard to understand. While the other four had gotten wide national releases and hefty advertising, Spirited Away never went wider than a mere 151 theaters and was practically invisible to the average moviegoer. As explained here, Disney's distribution of Spirited Away was an attempt to appease Pixar and John Lasseter at a time when the contract negotiations between the two studios were coming up. But as there were no merchandizing tie-in incentives for Disney plus a deep sense of "not invented here" towards the film, it was not too surprising that the film was punted over to the art house circuit with the expectation that it would quietly die there. What they didn't expect was that it would turn up on over 100 critics' "top ten" lists at the end of the year. Still, you had to hand it to Disney. The DVD release was due out two weeks after the Awards, but they went to work the Monday morning after the ceremony booking it back into theaters. By Wednesday night they were running commercials for it in prime time on both broadcast and selected cable networks. And on Friday Spirited Away reopened in just under 800 theaters nationwide, pretty much the most they could get on such short notice. During its initial run on the arthouse circuit it had only made about $5 million, but during the two week re-release it managed to double that total. It wasn't blockbuster status, but given the Keystone Kops-style marketing Disney had done, it wasn't too bad either.
The Academy Award for Spirited Away solved another long-running problem for Disney; what to do with the rest of the Ghibli films they had the English-language rights to, but had never released? After the initial contract in 1996, they had released Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) on home video and, in those heady days they actually set about to do a theatrical release of Miyazaki's earlier Castle in the Sky (1986). They went so far as to fly Joe Hisaishi, the soundtrack composer, to the US to oversee an orchestral re-recording of the soundtrack. (The original soundtrack was performed by a small ensemble with Hisaishi on synthesizer, and Disney felt it would not stand up to the newer theatrical sound systems.) But after the disastrous theatrical release of Princess Mononoke, all the Ghibli film releases were put on indefinite hold. After decades of conditioning the public to believe that "cartoons were for kids" Disney was clueless about how to successfully market the Ghibli films in the US. But now with the Oscar, the marketing folks finally had a hook they understood: release everything with cover stickers that said "from the Academy Award winning creator of Spirited Away..." Okay, I'm being a bit cynical here, but I am grateful that this finally got Disney to release all the other films. Spirited Away hit the shelves along with a re-release of Kiki and (after five years on the shelf) Castle in the Sky. This was followed in the next two years by the dubbing and home video releases of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984), Porco Rosso (1992), The Cat Returns (2002), along with Isao Takahata's films Pom Poko (1994) and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999). Finally this March we will get a new dub of My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Whisper of the Heart (1995) coming with the home video release of Howl's Moving Castle. At long last, all the Miyazaki films and almost all the Ghibli films will be available in North America.
So when Howl's Moving Castle was released in Japan in November 2004 (climbing to one of the top five all time money makers), there was no question this time whether Disney was going to release it here or not. The question now was: had Disney finally learned their lesson and would they give Howl the treatment a Miyazaki film really deserved? While Spirited Away was a fantasy set in a Japanese bath house, unfamiliar territory for most Western viewers, Howl was a standard "European-style" fantasy story, based on a novel by British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, a book that had been in print in the US since 1986. The story centered on a young girl magically cursed into an old hag who goes looking for the shadowy wizard Howl who may be able to break the spell. Certainly selling that should be a snap for the company that gave us Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Disney showed every intention of doing it right when they hired legendary actresses of the caliber of Jean Simmons and Lauren Bacall to voice the main characters. The Japanese press reported that Disney was planning on an 800+ screen release this time. Miyazaki fans like myself hoped for a little more. We understood that it wasn't realistic to expect a full wide release of 2500-3000 screens, but after Spirited Away's success and with a more "Disney-friendly" storyline, 1000 screens seemed reasonable. So we waited for the June release... and then...
...and like the rat that doesn't know any other way through the maze, Disney followed the Spirited Away release plan to the letter. Back to the art house circuit, Howl never got past 202 screens at its widest release (compare that to Wallace and Gromit and Corpse Bride, both of which maxed out at over 3200 screens). Yes, it got a half page feature on the front page of the Sunday New York Times' Arts and Entertainment section (complete with a huge color picture), but we wanted to see it getting attention in Oklahoma City too! This time Howl completely skipped some second tier markets such as Ft. Worth and Fresno, places that had gotten Spirited Away the first time through. It left most major markets after only two or three weeks and in the end it only pulled in $4.7 million, a bit shy of what Spirited Away did in its original release, and a paltry sum compared to the $190 million box office it did in Japan. Even then the inept marketing of Disney kept going. I remember sitting in a sold out showing of March of the Penguins last July and seeing the trailer for Howl. This was the ideal audience, nothing but parents and kids there, and I heard some "oohs" and "ahhs" coming from the audience during the trailer. It would have been perfect except for one detail: Howl had already closed in Dallas the week before.
So March 5th is going to be deja vu all over again. Once more millions of viewers across the country are going to watch the clip of Howl on the awards show and then turn to one another saying "Huh? Have you ever heard of this movie?" This time I doubt Miyazaki will win, I personally think Wallace and Gromit has it locked up. But I'm already wondering about the future. Now that John Lasseter, a long time friend (and an unabashed worshipper) of Miyazaki , is the head of all Disney animation, I'd like to think that any future Ghibli film will finally get the royal treatment from Disney. But will there be another Miyazaki film? His last three films, Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl, have each been hyped as "Miyazaki's final film." So we didn't take it too seriously, especially when Ghibli said last fall that Miyazaki's next feature film would be announced in January. But the announcement was that the next film, Tales from Earthsea, based on the Ursula LeGuin's books, would be done not by Hayao Miyazaki, but by his son, Goro Miyazaki. It is not clear at the moment if Hayao Miyazaki will ever do any more feature films, he may well stick to short films for the Ghibli Museum. So now that Disney animation finally has a leader who "gets it" and has the corporate political power to force Disney to do a decent wide release of a future Miyazaki film, it would be sad and ironic if there were no more Miyazaki films to come.