Howl's Moving Castle
(Hauru no ugoku shiro) (2004)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Artistic Value: * * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * * *

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Sophie, an eighteen year old girl, is transformed by the Witch of the Waste into an old woman. Unwilling to face her family as such, Sophie leaves home and wanders into the wilderness, where she chances upon the walking castle of the feared wizard Howl, in which she takes refuge. Having subsequently appointed herself the sorcerer's maid, the tenacious heroine soon becomes involved in helping Howl in his efforts to try to keep out of the war being fought between two neighboring kingdoms.

Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle may not be as good as the director's previous effort, Spirited Away, but it is still a stunning, delightful movie. In fact, this single work has more artistic merit than do all of Disney's animated films and all of Pixar's computer generated movies taken collectively.

The story the director tells is filled with adventure, suffused with magic, and enlivened by touching moments of introspection. It is, consequently, so genuinely involving that the viewer is sure to find himself swept away by the wondrous events that it reveals to him. The young protagonist's troubles are moving. Her flights from her enemies are exhilarating, and her encounters with diverse magical beings are truly marvellous. Furthermore, though Miyazaki's film is frequently thrilling, the director never loses his grasp on his narrative so that it becomes degraded into some mindless whirlwind. He allows the viewer to witness various simple moments and appreciate the beauty of his characters' hearts, of the wonders of nature, and even of the charms of daily life. Miyazaki has, in fact, created a captivating tale.

The persons around whom this narrative revolves are, however, perhaps even more intriguing than are the events that occur to them. Miyazaki, yet again, demonstrates his skill at giving life to young female characters. Sophie really is a joy to watch. Although she lacks self-confidence, thinking herself to be homely, and has difficulty expressing her emotions, she is also vivacious, decent, kind, and loving. Thanks to such qualities, the character is consistently able to involve the viewer in her life. Happily, while she may have the movie's most appealing personality, she is not, by any means, the only likeable individual Miyazaki has created. There is hardly a character in the film who will not delight the viewer. Howl is vain, childish, and irresponsible, but he is also compassionate and principled. Calcifer, a fire demon who has been bound to serve Howl, and who moves the wizard's magical castle, is a worrisome, charming rogue, and the Witch of the Waste, although she begins the movie as a gratuitously nasty creature, is eventually revealed as possessing a surprising gentleness and charm. All these persons, and several others, add to the movie's appeal.

What is more, from its first moment until its last, Howl's Moving Castle is visually astonishing. I cannot even begin to praise the director sufficiently for the skills he has displayed in conjuring up his incredible vision. Howl's castle, in particular, is amazing. Walking upon four mechanical chicken legs, like Baba Yaga's hut, adorned with a gaping mouth out of which lolls a huge metal tongue, crowned with domes, smokestacks, fins, balconies, bits of buildings, cogs, wheels, and other mechanical parts, it is a fantastic, mesmerizing wonder. It is hardly, however, the film's only fabulous element. At different points, Miyazaki shows the viewer quaint cities of half-timbered houses, flying toad-like fiends, a nauseatingly obese witch, her oleaginous, shape-shifting servants, vast, unwieldy ornithopters, a living, turnip-headed scarecrow, and much, much more. The moviegoer, presented with such a plethora of gorgeous, imaginatively realized images is sure to be bewitched by the world Miyazaki has crafted.

The film, unfortunately, is not perfect. Its conclusion is especially weak, being, frankly, both forced and unduly saccharine. Miyazaki, in every other movie he has made, has demonstrated a real talent for concluding his narratives in a poignant way. Sadly, the ending of Howl's Moving Castle is so abrupt and so neat that the viewer is not likely be moved by it. Even if he is able to find touching elements within its final moments, the adorableness and treacle in which the director has engulfed these events are almost certain to spoil much of that appreciation. This is not to say, however, that the ending is so bad that it spoils the film. While it is not impressive, and is a little irksome, it is not actually dreadful.

Despite its less than satisfying denouement, Howl's Moving Castle is, on the whole, a wonderful work of art. It is undoubtedly worthy of a place in Miyazaki's oeuvre.

Review by Keith Allen

Note: Howl's Moving Castle is available on DVD from YesAsia.

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