Howl’s Moving Castle: Brilliant on Blu-Ray

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Howl's Moving Castle, from  Disney/Studio Ghibli
Howl’s Moving Castle, from Disney/Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli is having a banner day today, which sees the release of one of the very first Hayao Miyazaki movies available in the West, My Neighbor Totoro, and one of the last by the now-retired legend, Howl’s Moving Castle.

I received review copies in advance of the films last week. As I’d never seen Howl’s Moving Castle ever, I watched that first. My eyeballs are still recovering from the visual feast.

Quick impressions, with some minor spoilers:

  • The movie’s transfer to Blu-ray is so good that it felt at times that I was watching a 3D movie, particularly in the opening sequence when the castle first appears.
  • I can only describe a few scenes as “Impressionist painting meets steampunk.”
  • I had no idea what “moving castle” meant. Now I want one. It’s on the list with Bag End and the Batcave as a dream residence.
  • I’m thrilled at the risks taken in plotting and character. For example, the lead character is a young girl but she spends most of the film transformed into an ugly old woman and the turnip scarecrow has no expression at all through the movie and yet is full of emotion. I suspect the original novel by Diane Wynne Jones is responsible for some of these elements but the movie makes them its own.
  • Despite enjoying this movie immensely, it’s not going to replace Kiki’s Delivery Service as my favorite Miyazaki film. Billy Crystal is great in Howl but he’s no Phil Hartman.
  • In some way, this reminded me of Doctor Who, with infinite possibilities and explanations available to a viewer, as time and space becomes all mixed up.

I found a few plot flaws as well but I’m not sure they are really plot holes at all. This is the kind of film that challenges the viewers to enter the world and create their own explanations. But some of these unanswered questions might bother younger children.

For instance, why is the young boy inside the castle and how did he meet Howl? What’s the real motivation of Howl’s mentor to bring him back into the war? Was she challenging him so he could find a way to end it? Or truly trying to get him under control? Why was the witch of the waste so wicked? What’s the source of her curse/enchantment? And why did Howl’s curse take that particular form?

But I also found myself being distracted by other questions, such as whether the flying battleships in the film were possible in real life.

The English language voice actors are a “who’s who” of acting talent. The cast includes Christian Bale as Howl, who I didn’t recognize as Bruce Wayne at all; British actress Jean Simmons as the elderly Sophie; Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste, Blythe Danner as Madame Suliman, Howl’s mentor; Emily Mortimer as Young Sophie; and the instantly recognizable Billy Crystal as Calcifer.

It’s hard knowing what ages to recommend the movie, as the slower pace points to children older than five but the imaginative ideas would be perfect for the younger ages. Of course, you could always buy it for yourself, watch it, and then decide.

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