Howl's Moving Castle
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Armen Boudjikanian · June 15, 2005 | Howl's Moving Castle is the latest animated feature by Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. Since readers may be familiar with Miyazaki's previous work, especially the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away from 2002, I will introduce this gem by saying that the director's distinctively surreal characters and narration have reached a certain universality with this film. Howl's Moving Castle is as much about human drama as it is about fantasy; its symbolism is as Western as Eastern and its ideal audience is everybody, really.

The film, based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, stars a hard-working milliner named Sophie (voiced by Emily Porter in the English dub) in industrial-age Europe. The location and time of the film are described vaguely by the presence of a queen and king, mechanical objects and vehicles, and a mysterious, nightmarish war.

Sophie, intelligent yet somewhat reserved, runs into the handsome man-child wizard Howl (Christian Bale) who is kind-hearted but still has a few things to learn about life. "He only goes after pretty girls," Sophie is warned by her cutesy, heavily made-up sister, Lettie.

If traces of a classic love story between two people from different worlds are appearing, do not worry. As in his previous work, Miyazaki successfully entertains and takes the movie's spectators to strange, exquisitely drawn places while saying a few things about love along the way. Howl, for one, is not just a boy who needs to learn how to love, he is a powerful wizard whose skills are requested by the queen to win the war. He runs away from his worldly problems, the ones he does not want to face, in his moving castle.

Howl's Moving Castle
Buena Vista Pictures, 2005
Originally released in 2004
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
119 minutes

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Sophie's representation of feminine maturity, even at a young age (a recurring Miyazaki theme) is represented in an incredibly simple and beautiful manner in this film: she is turned into an old woman at the beginning of the film by the jealous Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). She remains old (and voiced by Jean Simmons) throughout most of the film, sometimes switching dramatically between her two looks. I say looks, because internally she remains the same: kind, resourceful and in love with Howl.

Such is the world of Miyazaki, symbolically layered yet accessible to anyone who just wants to experience a good story. Howl's Moving Castle's naturalistic, traditionally drawn animation is top-notch and is combined seamlessly with a few (mostly mechanical) elements that are computer generated (more so than Spirited Away). What remains baffling is how Miyazaki's hand-drawn characters deliver so much emotion without calling attention to their simple design, even though they are constantly contrasted by incredibly rich and detailed scenery. The answer to that is the work of Studio Ghibli's master animators, and the writing, which make this animated film highly engaging although it does not feature a lot of action and adventure (unlike 1997's Princess Mononoke).

There is a noteworthy scene in this film that takes place on a stairway leading to the royal palace. In it, old Sophie and the Witch of the Waste (also elderly) climb the stairs to meet with the queen to discuss the war. The action is minimal, since the ladies walk very slowly, but the looks and the lines the two women exchange in this scene are most expressive. The way Miyazaki shows these two elderly ladies making their way up the stairs, unassisted by the royal guards, is incredibly moving and entertaining—a memorable scene in the history of animated film and of fiction films in general.

Howl's Moving Castle contains Western and Eastern fairy tale imagery (Sophie's curse, the fire demon Calcifer—voiced by Billy Crystal—who is responsible for Howl's moving sanctuary) but it resonates in its audience as the work of a single visionary. Miyazaki is an author filmmaker concerned with recurring themes (coming of age, nature, absence of parents), mood (strange yet optimistic) and characters (a strong feminine presence); this is what differentiates his work from that of a company that has merely discovered a successful formula.
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