Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Wizard of Odd

Film: Howl’s Moving Castle
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I don’t typically love the look of anime. It frequently delves into the oppressively cute, and there’s a part of me that objects to this almost as a gut-level reaction. This tends not to be the case with the work of Hayao Miyazaki, whose work tends to be of surpassing beauty and evidently limitless imagination. Howl’s Moving Castle is evidently not based on an original story by Miyazaki, but the artwork is purely from his fervent and fertile imagination. As with all of the others of his films that I’ve seen, Howl’s Movie Castle is a film of surpassing beauty.

I went into Howl’s Moving Castle completely cold, knowing only that it’s a Miyazaki film and that my kids like it. I had hopes, though, because I’ve at least liked every other Miyazaki film that I’ve seen to this point. That implies pretty heavily that I didn’t like Howl’s Moving Castle, I know. I did like quite a bit of it, but of the four Miyazaki films I’ve seen now, I think it’s my least favorite.

I watched the dubbed version; animated films are really the only place where I don’t have a massive problem with watching dubs instead of the original language because the mouth movements don’t tend to match up that well anyway. We start by meeting Sophie (Emily Mortimer), a young girl who works at a hat shop. She is accosted by a few soldiers while on her way to visit her sister and is rescued by Howl (Christian Bale), a powerful wizard. Later, back at the hat shop, she refuses to serve the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who curses Sophie, turning her into an old woman. Looking for a cure, Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) wanders into the wastes and meets an animated mute scarecrow she calls Turnip Head. She also finds Howl’s castle and manages to get inside.

Once inside, she meets Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a fire demon who powers the castle and causes it to move. Calcifer promises to break the curse on Sophie if she can break the curse that keeps him bound to the house. She also meets Howl’s assistant Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and stays on by claming to have been hired by Calcifer as a cleaning woman.

Eventually, a war breaks out between two kingdoms, one of which is the home to both Sophie and Howl. It happens that the heir to the neighboring kingdom has gone missing, and so there’s a war. Anyway, Howl wants to stay out of the war, so when he is summoned to the palace, he sends Sophie. The Witch of the Waste is also there, but she has her powers stripped from her. And there’s a dog. And eventually Sophie gets away with Howl’s help, but Howl is also some sort of bird demon and sometimes Sophie turns young again. And stuff.

Yeah, I got lost in this one pretty quickly. This is probably a film that needs to be watched a couple of times, but it’s also a prime example of what tends to bother me about anime in general. Yes, I realize that anime is a style more than it is a genre. I know that—no one in his or her right mind would legitimately put Grave of the Fireflies in the same category as Kiki’s Delivery Service. But there almost always feels like there is supposed to be a certain level of buy-in from the audience, a measure of familiarity with the world that the film takes place in that is never explained to me. Plenty of films give too much exposition, but with most anime, or at least those centered firmly in the fantasy or science fiction realms, I never feel like I get enough back story to really understand what is going on. Information seems to be dropped on us from time to time as if it supposed to help us make sense of the action, but it never helps me. I just get more and more lost while I look at the pretty pictures.

Really, the art is by far the best part of Howl’s Moving Castle. This is a gorgeously illustrated and beautifully animated film all the way through. But again, I know there’s a story in here somewhere, but I can’t find it through all of my confusion. The Witch of the Waste’s guards are never really explained, for instance, particularly since the same things seem to be working for someone else as well. Why is Howl a bird demon thing? What’s with the weird warships?

The biggest issue, though, is that the ending is incredibly rushed. All of the plot points wrap up in a couple of minutes at the end, and several of those plot points (like what happens with Turnip Head) resolve in ways that don’t make any sense. The ending is far too pat and far too fast to really be satisfying, especially when I feel like I didn’t understand half of the plot in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate this film, but I also can’t claim to love it. It is absolutely beautiful to look at, but I’m afraid I watched a large part of it doing an impression of my dog when she hears a noise she doesn’t recognize. You know, head tilted, puzzled expression, one eyebrow raised.

And I feel bad because I wanted to like it. I always want to like what I’m watching, but Howl’s Moving Castle, while pretty, left me wondering what the hell I’d just watched.

Why to watch Howl's Moving Castle: Incredibly good animation and artwork.
Why not to watch: It's hard to follow.


  1. While I don't find this one hard to follow, I do agree it being lesser Miyazaki (and so I feel it's insanely overrated, as many people consider it their favorite, which I just cannot buy into). I'm nearly finished with the book, which as I've said to you in the past is pretty insanely different from the film. There's aspects there, of course, but all the big details are either changed or cut.

    My biggest problem with this is exactly what you said: the ending is rushed and a bit contrived. I liked this movie more the second time I saw it, but I still couldn't get over that ending. So it's not my least favorite Miyazaki, but it's not nearly his best, either, in my opinion.

    1. It's evidently a mental block for me with certain films, I guess. I want to understand them better and feel like I'm not given enough information to actually understand them.

      And yes, the ending is the biggest issue. Everything resolves so quickly that most of the resolution feels undeserved and unsatisfying.

  2. I remember being bewildered by the preview trailer when this film came out in Korea. The title was literally the same in Korean as it was in English: "Ha-ul-ae Umjigineun Seong." The verb "umjigida" means "move," and "seong" means "castle." In any event, I couldn't make heads or tails of the trailer, and that's been the case for plenty of anime trailers after "Howl."

    Christian Bale as a powerful wizard, a channeler of otherworldly might... a precursor to his upcoming role as Moses?

    1. The literal Korean translation reminds me of the Eddie Izzard bit about watching Speed in France, which he says should have been called Vitesse but was actually called Speed (pronounced "Spid.")

  3. Thanks for reminding me of Kiki's Delivery Service. I love that movie!

  4. I liked this one more than you. I would place Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro ahead of it, but I feel it is a little better than Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, and Ponyo, and it is definitely better than Princess Mononoke, Porco Rosso, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. (I have not seen The Wind Rises yet.)

    I agree on the animation, especially in the subtle changes in the main character's appearance as she aged/de-aged.

    1. No way is this better than Kiki's Delivery Service. I might even argue Princess Mononoke, but it wouldn't be a heavy one. I will DEFINITELY give you that it's better than Porco Rosso and Nausicaa, both of which I am not a fan of. In fact, I'd have to say Porco, Nausicaa, and Howl's are the three most overrated Miyazaki films.

      I will, however, fight to the death about Kiki.

    2. I haven't seen a number of those, so I'm going to stay out of this.

    3. @Nick - Kiki is a very charming movie and one I would put fourth just behind Howl, but it is one that ultimately is more for a younger audience, whereas Howl is aimed more at a grown up audience with more subtleties in it ala Spirited Away. That's why I place Howl just ahead of it. It's the same reason I would place Spirited Away just ahead of My Neighbor Totoro.

    4. I guess I don't believe in the mentality that just because something is aimed at children automatically makes it inferior to something aimed at an older audience (though I'm not sure I entirely buy Howl is for an older audience--after all, it's based on a middle grade novel). But I tend to like a lot of kids movies. I'd say my Top 3 Miyazaki are Spirited Away, Kiki, and Totoro. I'd probably put Lupin III pretty high, too. Howl is somewhere in the middle.