Friday, 2 December 2011

Review: Howl's Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Sophie is a plain girl living a plain life working in a plain hat shop until a witch places a curse on her that turns her into a 90-year old woman.  Unable to face her family and friends, she goes to the wastelands to seek the witch and takes refuge in the castle of the wizard Howl–a moving castle that travels the countryside on mechanical legs powered by a fire demon that Howl keeps bound in the castle's hearth.  Posing as a cleaning lady, Sophie is drawn to Howl, who is an enigmatic young man who always speaks in an amused, though detached tone of voice and is tormented by some inner conflict.  Meanwhile, two kingdoms fight a terrible air war against one another using gigantic airships as the witch and a powerful sorceress hunt for Howl.

Like a lot of anime, the plot of Howl's Moving Castle is very hard to summarise.  In fact, there's very little point because it's heavily allegorical and serves mainly as a framework for visuals anyway. Director Hayao Miyazaki's screenplay based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones is a charming fairy tale romance that doesn't bear too much close examination.  It becomes obvious early on that this is less a coherent plot than the relation of a dream where logic is heavily internal and isn't expected to hold together very long anyway.  What must and does work is that the characters remain consistent and interact with one another in a logical manner, which Miyazaki achieves beautifully.

This is a stunningly lovely film with animation that is impressive by even the best Japanese anime standards and there is a playful quality to it all that acts as an excellent backdrop to a story that mixes whimsy with genuine emotion.   English-speaking audiences are also fortunate that when Walt Disney picked up the distribution rights they went to Pixar to do the dubbing.  Because of the huge differences between English and Japanese both in language and acting styles, this made for a challenge, but Pixar's choice of cast headed by Christian Bale as Howl and Jean Simmons and Emily Mortimer as old and young Sophie respectively reading from a script designed around not only translation, but matching screen action in an English-language context made for a much more accessible story that it is possible to get lost in.

Like most anime, Howl's Moving Castle requires some active suspension of disbelief to buy into and much of its meaning requires thought on the part of the audience, but the beauty and charm of the film make it suitable even for the youngest of film goers.

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