Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro)

Dislocation is rarely a pleasant experience, but when the title object of Howl’s Moving Castle first comes into view, its visual, historical, stylistic ambiguity is downright thrilling.

Master animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) once again takes the breath away with his bizarre imagination and richly painted scenes. The enormous lumbering gothic/sci-fi structure looming over the 1900 Alsatian cityscape evokes Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Breughel, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and yet remains resolutely unique – it is Miyazaki, and no one else. Neither a Hollywood computer-animated film nor a typical Japanese anime, Miyazaki’s work is a phenomenon onto itself.

As a movie, Howl’s Moving Castle, at two hours running time, is about a half an hour too long. As a work of art, a visual sensation, it’s over much too quickly, although it is guaranteed to continue to run in one’s mind. Adopting British author Diana Wynne Jones novel, Miyazaki tells the story of Howl, a terrifying and yet insecure wizard/demon; young milliner Sophie, who is turned into a 90-year-old woman by the Witch of the Waste; Calcifer, a fiery little demon, who powers the castle; Markl, Howl’s young apprentice; and the mystical Madame Suliman.

All of Miyazaki’s works are set between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He loves the period when flight was being discovered and human beings were moving into a new world of mechanical and technical innovation, still early enough for it all to seem experimental and adventurous. He is an unabashed romantic in a world full of explosions.

Heaven forfend that such a work be dubbed (Spirited Away was different – and superior – in the subtitled version), but Miyazaki admirers John Lassater and Pete Docter of Pixar put heart and soul into the English version and they succeeded. The voice talent for Howl’s Moving Castle is extraordinary: Jean Simmons is old Sophie (the film’s main character), Emily Mortimer is the pre-curse Sophie, Lauren Bacall makes the evil witch almost lovable, Blythe Danner is magnetic as Madame Suliman, Billy Crystal is Calcifer (and manages not to overdo it), and Christian Bale is Howl.

For Spirited Away fans, Howl’s Moving Castle is a must. For those unfamiliar with Miyazaki, this is a splendid introduction to the work of a creative genius.

– Janos Gereben