The talent of director Hayao Miyazaki to create worlds that are bizarre yet at the same time completely believable is arguably his greatest strength, and is what makes Howl's Moving Castle, his eighth and apparently final feature film, such a delight in spite of its flaws. For the first time, Miyazaki has adapted his screenplay from Western source material - a novel by popular British novelist Diana Wynne Jones - and the result is film that feels different from his previous body of work while at the same time still maintaining his favourite themes and once again delivering that special flair that makes him arguably the best director of hand-drawn feature animation working today.
Once again focusing on an outcast young woman, Miyazaki tells the tale of Sophie, a dowdy 18-year-old who works in her late father's hat shop. One night, Sophie encounters the nefarious Wicked Witch of the Waste, who curses her with the body of a 90-year-old woman. The now aged Sophie, unable to face her friends and family, heads off into self-imposed exile, where she hooks up with Howl, a vain magician who travels the countryside in his Moving Caslte, a huge metallic structure that strides about on tiny legs.
In virtually any other film, the rest of the story would be concerned with Sophie's struggle to recover her lost youth, but Howl's Moving Castle does not go down such an obvious route. Throughout the film, Sophie continues to grow younger and older, but while she does eventually regain her youthful body (to some extent), these changes are an external representation of her own personal growth rather than the result of a direct attempt on her part to return to her previous state.
A synopsis for a Hayao Miyazaki film seems like an almost superfluous endeavour, since the beauty of his stories lies not in specific plot details but rather in the dreamlike manner in which they unravel. Howl's Moving Castle, like its predecessor, Spirited Away, takes place in the realm of fantasy and lacks the literalism of his comparatively more plot-driven affairs like Porco Rosso (which, despite is protagonist being a pig, never strayed too far from the real world) and even Princess Mononoke. And, of course, Miyazaki once again brings in his oft-used backdrop of war (arguably more valid in the present climate than ever before), which constantly hovers over the more immediate concerns of Sophie and Howl, and at times encroaches on their more internalised struggles.
Nevertheless, for its first hour, the film remains relatively faithful to its literary source and develops in a fairly linear fashion. The second half, however, is a radically different beast, eschewing traditional plot mechanics in favour of a less literal visual spectacle, which in many respects recalls the more outré elements of Spirited Away taken to extremes. This ends up being both a blessing and a curse, since, while it results in some phenomenal visual spectacles, including some of the best effects work ever to be seen in an animated film, it is likely to frustrate more literal-minded audiences. I am not one to begrudge filmmakers the opportunity to delve into absurdity - after all, I consider Dario Argento's Inferno one of the finest works of pure cinema - but the fact remains that, at just a hair under two hours, Howl's Moving Castle is just slightly too long to sustain its meandering plot.
For those with sufficient attention spans to withstand the admittedly longwinded nature of Miyazaki's adaptation, however, Howl's Moving Castle is an absolute delight to behold. As is generally the case with Eastern animation, the character animation is considerably more stilted than its Western counterparts (although this is arguably less true of Miyazaki, who always seems to manage to infuse his characters with believably human traits despite being predominantly animated at a rather low eight frames per second), so the visual delights tend to lie in other, less obvious areas. I have already drawn attention to the visual effects, which are technically magnificent and yet manage to capture the old-world magic of the film's world perfectly, but the backgrounds also deserve special mention. Through a combination of traditional painting techniques and modern (but unobtrusive) 3D scaling and perspective distortion, the world in which the film takes place truly comes to life. Once again taking on composing duties, Joe Hisaishi provides yet another poetic score that complements the visuals beautifully.
For me, the best Miyazaki films remain his more realistic efforts, Porco Rosso and My Neighbour Totoro, but Howl's Moving Castle is nonetheless a welcome addition to his filmography and, if this is indeed his last film, serves as a more than adequate conclusion to an extremely impressive career. While the earlier Spirited Away is a more all-round inspiring work of fantasy, fans of Miyazaki's own particular brand of animation are unlikely to be disappointed by this beautifully-realised addition to his catalogue.
The English Dub
As with Spirited Away and the DVD releases of Miyazaki's earlier films, Howl's Moving Castle is presented in both its original Japanese and in the form of an English dub executive produced by John Lasseter, the head of both Pixar Animation Studios and now Walt Disney Feature Animation, and a close personal friend of Miyazaki. This time round, the dub was supervised by Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter and features an eclectic cast of performers, including Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Billy Crystal, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall and Blythe Danner. Unfortunately, the end result is rather less than awe-inspiring, for numerous reasons.
As I have argued elsewhere, the belief that talented live action film stars are adequately equipped to provide voice-overs for animation is a long-perpetuated myth. While I am not calling the talents of the voice cast into question, the fact remains that providing voice-over requires a completely different set of skills from live action, because the voice over artist's only tool is their voice, whereas live action actors have access to a much wider range of devices. As talented an actor as Emily Mortimer is, her dulcet voice fails to provide Sophie with the screen presence that could have been afforded by a performer with more experience in voicing animated characters. The same is true of Christian Bale, whose performance as Howl gives the impression that he received barely any direction by simply reading his lines in the same dull monotone.
The result is that the English version of Howl's Moving Castle doesn't hold a candle to that of Spirited Away, which remains one of the only dubs to actually bring anything of its own to the table. Needless to say, I recommend that you watch the film in its original Japanese with subtitles - but you knew that already, didn't you?
Howl's Moving Castle first appeared on DVD late last year in Eastern territories, with all releases featuring the same rather lacklustre transfer. Like Spirited Away before it, the film was surrounded by a thick black border to minimise overscan, resulting in a much smaller image than normal and significantly reducing the available level of detail. I am very much of the opinion that overscan is the responsibility of the viewer to correct rather than that of the DVD manufacturer, and as a result I am happy to report that the Western releases of the film make use of all the available resolution.
Disney's Region 1 version comes with a transfer that is very good but not perfect. The visible level of detail is for the most part very good, and the colours are bold and accurate, with a richer black level than those found on the Eastern releases. Compression artefacts are at times visible, but are for the most part kept in check. My main complaint regarding this release is that, during some of the more visually complex shots, the image has been softened and artificially edge enhanced to allow the film to be compressed at a lower bit rate than would otherwise have been required. Oddly enough, the UK release, reviewed here by Anthony Nield, does not contain this softening and yet demonstrates less compression artefacts!
You can view my comparison between the UK, US and Japanese releases of the film here.
I have already discussed the subject of audio in the section pertaining to the English dub, so not much more needs to be said here. While this release lacks the DTS-ES track present on the 4-disc Japanese Limited Edition release, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes for both the English and Japanese versions are of a very high standard and the result is a suitably enveloping experience regardless of which language you select. English subtitles have been provided for both the English and Japanese dialogue.
The Region 1 release contains a fair number of the extras that were included with the impressively feature-packed Japanese Limited Edition release, although not all of them have been ported over. Even in comparison to the UK version, the US version draws the short straw, lacking the Diana Wynne Jones interview, CG demonstration and English-language theatrical trailer included with that release.
Still, there is some interesting material on offer here, the first featurette being a piece entitled Behind the Microphone, which is exclusive to the US DVD. It covers the making of the English dub and includes comments from most of the key voice actors, as well as co-director Pete Docter, executive producer John Lasseter, and various other crew members. No-one really says anything of great note, but it is interesting to see the performers and crew members at work nonetheless.
An interview with Pete Docter follows, consisting of an off-screen interviewer asking the co-director of the English dub various questions. While the answers are often quite interesting, the fact that no-one has bothered to translate the on-screen Japanese questions means that they do not always make a great deal of sense (this issue was corrected for the UK release, which displayed the questions on-screen in English).
In the aptly titled Hello Mr. Lasseter, Miyazaki pays a surprise visit to Pixar Animation Studios for the first screening of the film's English dub - to the great delight of John Lasseter, who reacts with great gusto in his own inimitable way. The featurette lasts for 16 minutes and closes with an unusually sober interview with Lasseter.
The first disc closes with a reel of Japanese TV spots and trailers, which can be played with or without English subtitles.
The second disc contains the entire film in storyboard form - a welcome inclusion, although the fact that it is not possible to switch between the storyboards and the finished film robs it of some of the value it might otherwise have had. (The Japanese release solves this problem by including a heavily compressed version of the film itself as an alternate angle, while the UK release features the storyboards as an alternate angle on the first disc.) The storyboards can be watched with either English or Japanese Dolby Surround 2.0 audio and optional English subtitles.
Disney has provided a generally pleasing 2-disc set for their North American release of Howl's Moving Castle. While it features less in the way of bonus materials than the more generously packed Japanese or Korean editions, the improved image quality and inclusion of subtitles for the extras that are present are likely to make this a more preferable option. However, potential customers are advised that the UK release is better still, porting over more of the available bonus features and containing a slightly better transfer.