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Howl's Moving Castle

Familiar Themes with a Little Extra

Based on the novel for young adults by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle, scripted and directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli, may signal a decline in the director's storytelling skills or simply his unwillingness to take narrative or visual risks with material that closely tracks his previous work, e.g., Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service. Viewers familiar with these films will notice multiple similarities in terms of setting, character design, and themes (i.e., personal growth through hardship, redemption or reconciliation through love, female empowerment, anti-militarism, etc.), as well as Miyazaki's trademark preoccupations with flight and impossible flying machines.

As Howl's Moving Castle opens, Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer as a young adult and by Jean Simmons as an old woman), a young woman who works in a hat shop, finds herself saved by the handsome, if incredibly vain, Howl (Christian Bale), from the clutches of two overeager soldiers. Howl, it seems, is also fleeing a pursuer: blob men employed by the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), an oversized witch with an appetite for younger wizards. The Witch, jealous of Sophie's encounter with Howl, casts a spell on her. Sophie ages from young to old in a matter of seconds. Realizing that the curse cannot be undone without magical help, Sophie leaves her town, friends, and family behind, and begins both her inner journey (from self-doubt to self-confidence and maturity) and her outer journey (a counter-spell to break the curse). With magical help, she enters into Howl's service as his housekeeper.

It's in developing the Sophie/Howl relationship, however, that the director stumbles. Miyazaki's heroes and heroines are typically younger, and their relationships with the opposite sex tend toward friendship not romance. Even in Castle in the Sky, the relationship between the protagonists Pazu and Sheeta is more platonic than romantic, due to their young age (although it's strongly suggested that their relationship will become romantic as they grow older). Here, Miyazaki's unsophisticated, simplistic approach to romantic relationships almost derails Howl's Moving Castle. It's difficult to either accept Sophie's growing desire for Howl or Howl reciprocating that desire. Howl's inner transformation is also undermotivated. Miyazaki could have benefited from a stronger, more visible villain (Miyazaki switches villains halfway through the film, and leaves the second villain woefully undeveloped).

Still, despite a shaky, overlong second half and familiar themes and visual motifs, Miyazaki's trademark attention to visual style, from the backgrounds to the color design, is evident in Howl's Moving Castle.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars