Howls moving castle is a recent offering from Studio Ghibli the acclaimed Japanese hand drawn animation studio behind previous hits such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totorro, more abstract than many of its previous offerings, it is a flawed blend of fantasy, drama and even a little social commentary, that will prove an interesting watch for viewers who don’t have a prejudice against foreign cinema. It is based upon the Novel of the same name by British Author Dianna Wynne Jones, though many plot elements and characters have been reworked, not entirely successfully.
Set against the somewhat ominous backdrop of a chaotic war (Which figures less in the plot than you may think) Howls Moving Castle follows Sophie, a young woman (a staple character in Ghilbi films) unhappy with her job at her father’s hat shop. One day a chance meeting with a tall mysterious wizard called Howl (who sports a haircut which wouldn’t be out of place in a rock festival) changes her life in ways she cannot imagine. Soon falling for him she is cursed by the sinister servants of The Witch of Waste and transformed into a 90 year old woman.
Sophie flees her home, and moonlighting as a cleaning lady, she finds passage to Howls gigantic moving ‘Castle’ (Hence the title). Soon joining the wizard, his young apprentice Markl, and the wisecracking talking fire Calcifer (not to mention the sentient Scarecrow ‘Turniphead’ who pops up periodically) she finds herself involved in an unusual but action packed journey, gradually working out the truth behind Howl, The Witch of The Waste and her curse in the process. It’s a strange, complex narrative that certainly requires a leap of faith from viewers, but for those willing to take the plunge, an rewarding two hours awaits.
Despite the Colossal Success of Spirited Away, and the popularity of Studio Ghibli’s previous films, Director Hayao Miyazaki was at first reluctant to come out of retirement to make this film, (he has since directed another feature-Ponyo). Thankfully there are few signs of fatigue, the voice cast are as enthusiastic as ever, the designs still as striking, and the plot just as…different. The most noticeable change is the slightly sharper animation-which is by no means a bad thing.
Howls Moving Castle, despite being an adaptation follows the studio’s usual template, bringing the expected high points and flaws in the process. The film opens with an exciting chase sequence, which does a good job at setting up the film’s plot and characters (though not the setting- it’s never clear where the film takes place, 19th Century Alsace was apparently a reference point). Other Studio staples are evident, an odd-couple love story, sinister servants, dramatic set pieces (Which progressively get better), and some truly ludicrous humour (wait to you see the Witch of the West up close), all wrestle for prominence as the storyline slowly unfolds.
But as ever with the studio, it is the visual’s themselves which truly shine, gorgeous sunsets, dramatic landscapes and the exciting action sequences are all impressive, but it is the title characters which make the biggest impression. Howl’s multi-legged Castle is a rundown mix of Steampunk ruin, and Gilliamesque indulgence, making a strong impression as it clambers through the wilds, whilst Howls true form, when it finally appears is bizarre in the extreme, and more than worth the wait.
A unusual musical score is a great addition to the film, whilst the strong voice cast- Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer and Billy Crystal being examples, bring a lot of enthusiasm to their roles (The original Japanese Language Version is also available for purist’s) and make their strange character’s very believable.
Miyazaki throughout his career has remained unbound by Hollywood conventions of storytelling, but in this film (perhaps enticed by Spirited Away’s strong Western Box Office) he attempts to blend a more universal appeal with his own personal beliefs, the results are curious and uneven. The designs, and intentions of the story are all vintage Ghibli, but as with other recent films by the studio there is too much going on, side stories and diversions often lead nowhere and slow the film (it noticeably sags in the middle)- its only 119 minutes long, and the complicated ending doesn’t completely tie together the different plot strand’s , before the film literally collapses.
Thinly veiled references to Peter Pan and the War on Terror are Evident in the film, it’s annoying and an unnecessary diversion from the source novel, whilst the War forms little more than a backdrop through to the film, removing much dramatic tension, and causing more than a little confusion. Most of the changes made from the novel don’t affect the film massively- several characters have been reworked or are largely absent to match the storyline closer, but fans of the book may be disappointed if they don’t come in with an open mind.
Howl’s Moving Castle is admittedly a little hard to follow, and not necessarily amongst the Studios best work, but its strengths outnumber its cons, enough of the film comes together by the ending credits to make it worth a watch, what it occasionally lacks in logic, it makes up with heart. Not essential viewing, but by no means bad.
7/10 Paul Ashwell