Howl's Moving Castle
Over the past two decades, animator Hayao Miyazaki has successfully taken over the reins once held by Walt Disney he's become the animation superstar, with his Studio Ghibli-produced films like Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) delighting critics and audiences alike. Despite the very strange, very Japanese dream logic that infuses his films, Westerners have enthusiastically embraced his work, including the sometimes less-than-ideal movie star voices employed by Buena Vista (the company started by Mr. Disney himself) to dub the films' dialogue. Miyazaki's style charmingly sentimental, with a tangy undertone of environmental consciousness translates well for broader cultures, and it's easy to see why he would choose to adapt the popular novel Howl's Moving Castle by British fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones. Like Miyazaki, Jones has been producing clever, magical tales that please both children and adults since the 1970s, mostly featuring young, female heroines. Here, it's Sophie (voiced in English by Emily Mortimer), a timid hatmaker who lives in an industrialized 19th century town with her more beautiful sister and somewhat distant mother. After an encounter with a notorious, charismatic wizard named Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie's cursed by the jealous Witch of the West (Lauren Bacall), who steals Sophie's youth, leaving her creaky and old (as well as having Jean Simmons' voice). To try and break the curse, Sophie leaves the steam-punk city, with its smoke-billowing trains and bewinged aircars, and travels in her crone form to Howl's castle, a belching, clanging amalgam of the mechanical and the organic that walks across the countryside, seemingly with a mind of its own. There she meets a fire demon named Calcifer (an annoying Billy Crystal, doing his over-the-top, Catskills comedian shtick), who agrees to help remove Sophie's curse if she'll return the favor.
It may be impossible for Miyazaki to make a bad film, and Howl's Moving Castle is very, very good. But after the near perfection of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and his less-seen porcine flyboy adventure Porco Rosso (1992), this one is ever so slightly disappointing. In large part, it's because Sophie is a much more passive heroine than those in Miyazaki's previous films until she finally makes a decision and takes action near the film's end, everything happens to her, not because of her, making her seem more of a bystander than a protagonist. The development of real feelings between Sophie and Howl, which figured largely in Wynne's novel, is never even hinted at here until a romantic ending that feels forced. And a number of characters with whom Sophie interacts like an enchanted scarecrow who hops about and follows her from place to place are interesting but show up without bringing anything significant to a murky, sluggish plot. All of this, however, is presented with Miyazaki's irrepressible, astonishingly detailed direction, and the film is always a joy to look at, even if we're kept at something of a distance from the story. Like all of his pictures, it benefits from viewing on the big screen so the bigger your television, the better. While certainly not the best of his work, it's still several leagues ahead of what anyone else does in the genre and offers some stupendously impressive eye-candy.
Buena Vista's Region 1 DVD release of Howl's Moving Castle follows an earlier Asian release of the film, here in a slim, two-disc package with a small handful of only mildly interesting extras. Disc One features the film in either the original Japanese or with the translated English dub, both in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Both tracks are fine, clean, and bright, with music and dialogue coexisting nicely. However, the optional English subtitles are an unappealing yellow color and are placed squarely across the picture about a quarter of the way up the screen, making them extremely intrusive. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is quite good, sharp and clean with excellent, rich color reproduction. Disc One also offers a featurette "Behind the Microphone" (9 min.) about the process of dubbing the foreign-language film into English, and two features which originally appeared in a Japanese press kit: an interview with Pixar filmmaker Pete Docter (7 min.) (frustratingly, no subtitles are provided for the Japanese interviewers' questions, but Docter's answers are in English) and a pleasant piece aptly titled "Hello Mr. Miyazaki: Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar" (16 min.) (which does have subtitles but focuses far too much on Pixar's ego-riffic chief honcho John Lassiter). There are also TV spots and trailers. Disc Two's only offering is a storyboard presentation of the entire film, which this reviewer didn't have much use for but which may be nice for the small number of DVD consumers who actually care about that sort of thing. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.