June 21, 2005 -- “Howl's Moving Castle” (Hauru no ugoku shiro) is another endlessly inventive animated feature from Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master of animation. Miyazaki, creator of animation masterpieces like “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away” has created another winner that is no less Oriental in its theme, despite the fact it is based on a Western novel by Diana Wynne Jones.
The story is a curious cross between the Cinderella fairy tale and a karma-related story, such as “Holes.” It is also an anti-war story with some real power. The main character is Sophie, an 18-year-old girl who has withdrawn from the world. She works long hours in a hat shop and watches the world go by from her shop window. One day she meets Howl, a mysterious wizard, (voice by Christian Bale of “Batman Begins”) who rescues her from the unwanted attentions of some soldiers. In doing so, however, Sophie, gets caught up in a dispute between powerful magical foes. As a result, the Wicked Witch of the Waste (voice by veteran star Lauren Bacall) turns Sophie into a 90-year-old woman (voice by veteran star Jean Simmons). Sophie manages to escape from her village and ends up in Howl's moving castle, a giant armored moveable house with a magic door that opens into different kingdoms.
Sophie takes on the job of cleaning the very messy bachelor pad and taking care of Howl and his young apprentice, Markl, and a feisty fire demon, Calcifer (voice by comic Billy Crystal). All of the characters in Howl's moving house are wounded in some way. Through Sophie's love, kindness and care, all are healed. At the same time, a senseless war rages between two kingdoms, threatening to destroy both. Howl is summoned to fight for both kingdoms, but he is interested in fighting for neither one. He, like Sophie, has been hiding from the world for years. He has also been hiding from his own heart. Because of Sophie, he decides to get involved in politics and war. He makes his stand in a final climax.
The story works on many levels, as an anti-war story, as a story about the fruitlessness and danger of non-involvement in life and politics, but mostly, it is a story about the matchless power of love. The story is an oddity in that there are no real villains. The horrors of war result from bombs falling from the sky, or from remote cannons. We never see the soldiers doing the fighting. The fact that the entire war is a result of misunderstandings is no consolation to those whose lives have been destroyed by it. This is how the people of Iraq must feel. The story seems to wander loosely at times, but in the end, it works.
The film I saw is the English-dubbed version, and the voice actors mentioned are those who performed for the English soundtrack (directed by Pete Docter of Pixar Studios). The character names are also those of the English version (for instance, in the original Japanese version, Howl is Hauru). This is a good English dub, similar to the English dubs for “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away.” Some purists will want the original Japanese dub with subtitles, and I'm sure that will be available on DVD someday, but there is nothing at all wrong with this English version of the film. Remember, all animated films are dubbed. The only thing that matters is whether it is a good dub or a bad dub. The artwork, and the visual imagination shown in this film is stunning for the most part. I thought the character of Calcifer looked pretty cheesy, though. This film rates a B.
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