Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle
A few weeks ago I attended the premiere of Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated film, Howl’s Moving Castle, at the MOMA here in NYC. I was ecstatic that the first premiere I’d ever attend was a Studio Ghibli creation. Maybe it was my brimming anticipation, or the expectations I’d come to hold from the reassurance that the creators of my favorite animated films could never, EVER do wrong… I was sure that night that I would come out of the theater happy and wide-eyed under yet another Miyazaki spell. I had no idea I was in for quite a different experience…

I grew up flying the skies with Kiki on her broom, riding the winds with Totoro, taming the Ohmu with Nausicaa, and floating down mine shafts with Sheeta and Pazu. Avid anime watchers may recognize the names of my childhood companions as the masterful creations of aforementioned Hayao Miyazaki. To my delight, the works of this Japanese titan have come to be appreciated by a wider audience outside his motherland. Not only did this start with the international popularity of his newer works such as Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, the latter of which won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, but also with his earlier titles being released as DVDs from Disney.

While waiting in line with a friend some two hours before the showing at MOMA, I was star-struck by the sight of Mr. Miyazaki walking with his entourage, only a few feet away. It’s an altogether surreal experience, being in the presence of someone you’ve held in such high regard for a good part of your adolescent and adult life… I wanted to run up to him and give him a huge HUG — thank him for the magic he created that I’d relished as a child…

Moving Castle
This magic, alas, becomes a bit excessive in Howl’s Moving Castle. The film is based on a children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones. It’s a story about the adventures of young Sophie and her encounters with the dashing wizard Howl who lives in (you guessed it) a moving castle. As is characteristic of other Miyazaki films, Howl’s is rendered beautifully — a little lavishly in this case, with dazzling vistas and flashy magic tricks galore. The delivery of the plot feels different from Miyazaki’s usual style, in that the relationships between the main characters and their context seem less fulfilled, even inconsequential at times. The characters seem oddly disconnected from each other and from the events that take place around them, making them a little elusive. I found myself getting impatient when I realized that Howl’s was little more than a self contained love story. (Not that there’s anything wrong with these. I’ve just grown to expect meaningful and more universal/spiritual messages in Miyazaki films.) The pacing was such that 3/4 into the movie, I started wondering when it would be over (which I have NEVER done in any Miyazaki films I’d seen to date), and was taken aback by how the plot resolved itself so abruptly at the very end. (Qualities that seem incongruent with the original novel.)

Howls Bed
Although this optical feast had its delightful moments (Billy Crystal’s voice gives life to Calcifer the fire demon and provides a sensible amount of comic relief), in the end it seemed too pretty, too sweet, and too simple to live up to the title of a Miyazaki film. I found myself yearning for the less glitzy splendor of his earlier works; where I didn’t see as much frill but more substance; where the cinematography, score, and script complemented (not competed with) each other; where the characters’ joys and tribulations felt so real that they became my own. Still, I must admit I’d rather have some Miyazaki than none, and hope his decision to retire (which he announced back when he completed Princess Mononoke) stays unfulfilled.

3 Comments

  1. Roger Whitehouse

    Well said. I loved the wonderful fantasy of Princess Mononoke, (particularly the little rattling ghost creature thingies) and can’t wait for this one. Reading your essay will probably improve my enjoyment because I often ruin movies for myself by expecting too much. I will post another comment when I have seen it (when it comes out on DVD).

  2. nn

    this movie is the best……… of all the films
    the topic is very interesting
    and the people is fantastic

  3. Christian

    Totoro is still my favorite, and although I havent seen Howell’s or Princess Mononoke yet, I think I will find it hard to find such a film that captures the innocence of children and the imaginations that have become their realities as well as this one does. I absolutely love the characters, but thats common for this film maker.
    Awesome review Saki! Thanks for sharing it with me!
    -C

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