The first sign of amazement this movie caused me came from the foreign
markets report in Weekly Variety in late January (it opened there in
November, 2004), where its grosses exceeded $200 million--a figure this
movie-loving country hasn't seen since "Spirited Away" in 2002! So, what on
earth is a "Howl," I wondered. Mystified, and maybe a little perturbed at
the absence of any references to something this big on our shores, I slowly
learned that it was the latest anime' product from Hayao Miyazaki,
unexpectedly following up his archly gripping Japanese story with a magical
fantasy by a British author (Diana Wynne Jones).
After waiting months for it to be redubbed into English with an American cast
voicing the parts, I can tell anyone who doesn't have something against
animated features that there's a huge pleasure in store for them this season.
I'm even agreeable to the publicity hype about Miyazaki: "One of the most
original, influential and visionary filmmakers in animation." Miyazaki sets
the standard for soul-reaching storytelling. In anime', he has secured the
Dealing with wizards and witchcraft, he weaves a spell of mystical fantasy.
By its wardrobe and custom, it's sometime in the past in a region where kings
rule and wizards advise. (The parallel to the current administration in
Washington might not be accidental). With battleship airplanes flying the
skies, it's futuristic as well as fanciful. But the prize for invention goes
to the moving castle.
It's not only that it's a pile of machinery with legs, but also, and most
incredibly, that it has several portals of reality in which it functions, from
the countryside in the Wastelands to the bricked streets of Kingsbury, from
fearful to idyllic -- you dial up the environment you want and step out into
Howl, himself, is the young, handsome master of the supernatural household, a
sure-fire babe magnet--a winged heartthrob. He's also an emotional wreck, a
wizard who flies and rescues damsels in distress while escaping his personal
demons, curses, and destiny.
And, so it is one day, he flies down into the city and finds innocent little
Sophie (aka, Zofi, voiced by Emily Mortimer) being accosted on a barren
street by two army guardsmen. He does away with the thugs in short order but
realizes that the bigger problem is the Witch of the Waste's black leech-like
minions pursuing him and now he's brought her spiteful attention to Sophie,
whom she will see as competition for the fair-feathered boy.
Sure enough, the hefty sorceress (demonically voiced by Lauren Bacall) shows
up at Sophie's hatshop and casts a spell on her that turns her into an old
woman, (now voiced by Jean Simmons). Fearing riducule and estrangement from
her own family, Sophie takes off for the road where, once out in the
Wastelands, she meets up with Turnip, the scarecrow. At first, she tries to
get rid of the silent, well-meaning creature who hops around on its stick.
But, as he seems to understand Sophie's need for shelter, she follows him to
the magical, moving castle.
The place is a mess, with dust and litter everywhere, a typical bachelor pad.
The host isn't at home, but his young apprentice, Markl (Josh Hutcherson),
complete with phony beard, is. And, so is Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a demon
who resides in the fire on the hearth and whose energy is what heats the
furnace, the water and provides the locomotion of the castle, itself. But his
power and willingness to use it for the Howl domain has come with a price. He
holds the master's heart as a form of collateral in a contract of mutual
Before long, Grandma Sophie, has put a spit and shine on the place, making it
feel more cared-for and homey, and becomes a fully accepted member of the
Howl "family" as she gets involved in Howl's attempts to avoid a summons to
appear before the king and the dark spirited, influential Madame Suliman
(Blythe Danner), his head sorceress, who may have something to do with his
ebbing powers. He's tormented by it, expressing his despair by melting into
a green, gooey, mess that slops the floor... which Grandma Sophie's got to
clean up. She exerts her gentle personal therapy to deal with his psychic
All of which becomes a Miyazaki vision that may have been initially conceived
by a British novelist but which he turns into a soaring display of inventive
daring, satire, humor and enchantment. He once again spins a story that only
a fabulist can conjure, avoiding stereotypes in a medium that sprouts them
like alfalfa. Calling this filmmaker an animator is like calling Picasso a
While Chris Delaporte and Pascal Pinon with their "Kaena: The Prophecy," and
Mamoru Oshi with his "Ghost in
the Shell 2: Innocence" are masterpieces of visual art, intelligibility
is lost in both because of the need for a prior knowledge of their story
references and meanings. Miyazaki's stories are complete and take us on
extraordinary adventures. He insistently avoids stereotypes in a medium that
sprouts them like rutabaga. No villain is without human, even admirable,
qualities. No heroine doesn't have a dark secret or selfish habit. In a
comparison, I'd put "Howl's..." closer to Sylvain Chomet's darker "The
Triplets of Belleville" in its bending of realities and worlds than, even, to
his own "Spirited Away," which occupies its own rare space.
After waiting months for this 2004 film to arrive, I realize why, despite an
originality rising from a very different country and culture, the Japanese
embraced it so heartily. Now, it's time for this cross-cultural original to
work its magic around the world.
~~ Jules Brenner