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Howl's Moving Castle

It remains quite telling that the most innovative, most imaginative, most enchanting animated features coming out of the House of Mouse are not actually Disney projects at all. Anyone following Pixar’s continued success knows that the studio matches its technical prowess with equal parts story and insight, something becoming more and more rare within the halls of Walt.

However, Pixar’s digital masterpieces are not the only films being distributed by Disney with more integrity and heart than anything else the studio homebrews. Hiyao Miyazaki, whose name is now synonymous with quality stateside, continues to produce films more in line with the values and veracity once upheld by projects bearing the Disney name. In fact, Disney’s sole successes of late have stemmed directly from the company it's kept, namely Pixar and Miyazaki’s own Studio Ghibli.

Miyazaki has an innate knack of pulling from nightmare and fantasy alike to produce a tapestry so rich and full of beauty that audiences cannot help but be swept up in the whole affair, and his latest film Hauro no ugoku shiro, known as Howl’s Moving Castle stateside, is no different.

Adapted from an obscure novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle tells of a world full of magical realism, dashed with the absurd and curiously poignant. Sophie, a homely young woman who has resigned to keeping her father’s hat shop open after his untimely death, gets swept up into the midst of a war being waged by wizards of warring nations when she encounters a mysterious wizard named Howl (Christian Bale), whose reputation of devouring the hearts of young beautiful women precedes him.

What ensues is a power struggle between the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), Howl, and a wily sorcerer named Madam Suliman (Blythe Danner). What sets Miyazaki’s work apart from the rest is his ability to create a world that at once mystifies with its magical appeal, yet remains painted in strokes of realism in both characterization and emotion. Sophie’s fears and struggles, as rooted in the fantastic as they may be, still mirror those of the everyman/woman. When the Witch of the Waste punishes Sophie with the worst curse imaginable, the end result is not one indicative of suffering from any form of physical pain. Instead, Sophie is aged seventy-two years and forced to live out her days suffering from the aches and pains of old age.

The whimsy of such a fate is the exact reason why Miyazaki’s films appeal to both young and old alike. While adults find chuckles in Sophie’s adages regarding her newfound senior status, children find glee and fear alike in being sentence to such fate. Gasp, imagine growing old!

Characters here are never painted in black and white, either. While the Witch of the West remains villainous for various reasons, we gain insight into her reasoning, and at times find ourselves relating to her plight in the process.

The rest of the characters play equally moving, if not equally troubled additions to Howl’s ever-growing family. Calcifer’s (Billy Crystal) origin and purpose remains one of the most engaging treats to discover within the film. Some of the most touching moments come from Sophie’s interactions with her surrogate son Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and guardian angel Prince Turnip (Crispin Freeman).

As with all Disney-released Miyazaki films, the studio continues to perpetuate the popular assumption that the American audience will reject a subtitled animated film on a wider scale. They may be right, as many of the subtleties could be easily lost on the uninitiated while trying to keep up with the pace of the film. However, despite the excellent performances by all of the voice talent involved here, Howl’s Moving Castle still feels like an integral piece of the puzzle was somehow lost in translation.

Purists will eagerly await the film’s release on DVD to remedy this.

Despite the expected troubles with dubbing, Howl’s Moving Castle remains a cut above the rest. Aside from an engaging plot and its wonderful escapist zeal, it remains the only film, until June 15th, that features Christian Bale playing a winged vigilante who lives a dual life.


Mario Anima

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