And in continuing with our series on really trippy animated films, here’s Howl’s Moving Castle!
Very few people can deny that Hayao Miyazaki is one of the great geniuses of animation, constantly pushing the boundaries of what animation can do while telling great stories at the same time. Even people who don’t like the anime style of animation like his films. He’s the Walt Disney of Japan. That being said though, even a genius has to fail every once and a while.
Okay, “fail” is too strong of a word in regard to Howl’s Moving Castle because this movie is far from being a failure. There is so much about this film to admire and enjoy. The visuals in Howl may be the best I’ve ever seen in a Miyazaki film, with the colors, the use of light, and the bizarre, surreal, yet imaginative images that Miyazaki’s animators compose so skillfully. The characters are as engaging as always. Sophie is another of Miyazaki’s great female protagonists and none of the other characters have only one dimension to them. Even the villains have a good side that shows the audience that they deserve our understanding just as much as the heroes do. One of the things I love most about Miyazaki’s films is the way he is able to create atmosphere to the extent that the audience is able to enter the world he creates. He retains such a mastery over the visuals and the music and conveying what the characters are feeling, and is able to completely immerse the audience into the world he’s created.
That all being said however, Howl’s Moving Castle does not live up to the expectation that a Miyazaki film normally brings. Most of the blame comes down on the story. The film feels overburdened with the amount of story it’s trying to hold up and has a lot of trouble keeping track of all the plot points and story threads that it sets up. Probably the most important plot point that the film skirts over is Howl’s involvement with the war between kingdoms. Since the war itself is thrust into the background of the film, there normally wouldn’t be a problem with not knowing why these two kingdoms are fighting, but in this case, the war relates directly in some way to Howl, who seems to be one of the main players in this war. Because we, the audience, don’t know much about the war, we don’t know what’s at stake for the character fighting in it and we don’t know what’s at stake for the civilians on the outside looking in, therefore, we don’t have any context for what kind of dangers the characters are facing. I honestly feel like the war was added to give a background setting for the world that the characters inhabit, since most of the film revolves around their relationships with each other and how they become a family. I would be fine with this, but like I said before, the main characters (especially Howl) have too much of a stake in this war. Their fates are tied to the war but we don’t know exactly how they are tied together, which creates problems for our understanding of the story.
That point leads directly to my next point which concerns the Prince. At the end of the film, it seems to become clear why the two kingdoms are fighting and it has to do with this missing Prince (I should say it’s implied. No one actually says out loud that that’s the reason). That gives some clarity to the reason why the war was being fought (although not to exactly what role Howl played in the war). However, it seems to me that it would be important to bring to light this fact that the Prince was missing and there’s a big conflict over it, if the war is indeed important to the main plot of the film (which it seems to be since it directly affects the fate of our main characters). Therefore, why is this missing Prince only mentioned at the very beginning by a passing civilian in the background and never spoken of again until the very end when he reveals himself to have been Turnip Head all along? It’s like he was added in as an afterthought. It didn’t add up why this character was either important or not important.
I think another of the main problems that this movie has is Sophie’s changing goals. It is quite common for the protagonist in movies to change their goal multiple times over the course of a film. It would be dull to watch a character only pursue one goal over the course of two hours without side-quests and other conflicts thrown in. The Lord of the Rings would be much less interesting if it was just Frodo walking to Mordor without various complications thrown in to make the journey more interesting. However, most movie characters also have a macro goal that never changes throughout the film. For Frodo, it’s to get to Mordor to destroy the Ring (or for the members of the Fellowship, to help Frodo destroy the Ring). No matter what side-quest he and his friends embark on, it’s all in service to destroy the Ring of Power. In a movie like this that is full of fantastical elements that the audience is most likely to be unfamiliar with, it’s helpful to have a relatable protagonist with a macro goal that the audience can latch on to amidst all the fantasy. Sophie doesn’t have a consistent macro goal. It changes throughout the movie and that only serves to make the film seem even more convoluted. She starts off setting out to find a way to break the spell that the Witch of Waste put on her to make her an old lady. That is the macro goal that the audience initially latches onto, but Sophie completely abandons that goal as she presumably becomes accustomed to her new form (although the magic seems to fluctuate, maybe as the Witch of Waste loses her power?) and her macro goal changes to finding a way to help Howl get his heart back. This bothered me because it voided the first half of the movie in a way. While there were other important events that occurred in the first half that do tie into the second half, the macro goal that we, the audience, became invested in for the first 45 minutes and were expecting to see paid off, suddenly disappeared and didn’t seem to matter anymore. This leads to questions about whether anything else that seems at stake actually matters and leads to more troubling questions like, “Why should we care?”
The final point I would like to address (and this is both a positive and negative point) is the voice acting. I’ll freely admit that I saw the English language dub of the film. I don’t generally watch anime in the original Japanese because reading the subtitles greatly distracts from the animation; and since the lip movement isn’t usually animated to match the speech, it doesn’t make any great difference to me whether the film is in English or Japanese. Therefore, I am reviewing the English voice cast of the film.
The voice cast was hit and miss. I thought both actresses playing Sophie were uniformly excellent, especially Jean Simmons as “Grandma Sophie.” They were both phenomenal. I’m afraid the same cannot be said for Christian Bale as Howl. While he had the right type of voice for the part, that is, very mysterious and low, he didn’t have the right energy that the part required. It sounded like he was trying really hard to be playful and vain character yet not having any fun doing it. His acting was very stiff and forced. He was able to break through and inhabit the character occasionally, like when Howl discovered his hair was accidentally changed to black. The rest of the performance didn’t work so well. Billy Crystal as Calcifer fell in the middle, mainly because he was Billy Crystal and was clearly cast for his celebrity voice status (I don’t believe Bale was since this was released before Batman and before Bale was a household name). While Crystal did a good job as Calcifer, he was never able to convince me he was anybody else but Billy Crystal, which is a shame because Calcifer is such a distinct and singular character, he deserves to be recognized for who he is as a character, rather than for who played him.
While I do go into great detail about what fails about this film, let me stress again that it is not a failure of a film. Though most of the problems come from the fact that there’s simply too much story for the film to support, I do recommend this film. The visual mastery that it displays and the occasional moment that is able to shine through to greatness is well worth the time, though I wouldn’t recommend this film to those who are just starting out on Miyazaki. Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are much better entry points to Miyazaki’s work than this film.
Coming up next: Since we’re well into our international tour of film animation, we might as well continue with gusto! Next stop: Ireland!