RetroReviews #37: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

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JUNE 20, 2013 SCREENING: HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

The last (but not least) of the three Hayao Miyazaki movies I screened was Howl’s Moving Castle. In terms of quality, it actually falls somewhere between the other two movies, making it a nice median choice if you’re looking to check out his work in anime. It’s not the beautiful and charming masterpiece that Spirited Away is, but it’s also not the dark and macabre dreamworld that Princess Mononoke is. Rather, we get different aspects from each: this movie is mostly fun and breezy, and humorous like Spirited Away, but it comes across as a bizarre, random series of events that make no sense, as was the case for Princess Mononoke. I thought the film was enormously creative, and kept my interest throughout, but once it was over, I sat there stunned, going “What the HECK just happened?”

I can give you the basic premise and storyline, but that won’t help much. Early in the film, a sweet innocent 18 year old girl has a spell cast on her by an evil witch, and becomes a stocky little 81 year old woman. She spends the rest of the movie trying to undo the curse. Of course, the film lives up to its title by having a character named Howl and he does indeed have a moving castle (which gets up and walks around at various points in the movie), but don’t expect any of these elements to work in the standard narrative format that you’re used to. At some points in the movie, the main character even appears to revert back to a young woman, only to become old again, and why exactly that happened or what the movie was trying to saying or how it was advancing its plot, I have no idea.

As is the case with Miyazaki’s other movies, Disney distributed the English language version and gave us an all star cast to Americanize it. Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, and Blythe Danner are among the stars that lent their voices to the English language version (apparently, Bale did so simply because he liked the idea, and agreed to play any character from the start). This film also has something unique because it was the first and only time where I felt an “Americanized” version of a Japanese anime character went beyond trying to make sense of Japanese culture, but took it to a new level as a charming character in his own right. Billy Crystal voices Calcifer, which is a self-aware taking flame (complete with eyes and mouth) and I felt he really elevated it to something new and made the character his own.

I’m giving Howl’s Moving Castle a positive rating and review for one simply reason: I found it to be fun and thoroughly entertaining. The story made no sense, the characters (aside from Billy Crystal’s talking fire) didn’t work for me, I don’t think it represented the British novel it was adapting very well at all, but in spite of all that, I loved it. Damn it, weird Japanese movie, you won me over.

*** out of ****

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