Film — Howl’s Moving Castle (PG)


By Amy Diaz

A teenage girl falls in love with a wizard, is turned into an old wizard and travels around a Monet-like countryside in a giant four-legged house in Howl’s Moving Castle, an animated movie by Hayao Miyazaki of Spirited Away fame.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a rarity in that it is clearly a movie for kids but it is so skillfully constructed that it is enjoyable to adults as well without specifically catering to them as, say, Shrek did with winks, nods and in-jokes. The movie is like a picture book with illustrations so rich that even the occasional nonsensicalness of the story doesn’t detract from the entertainment value of the book.

Sophie (Emily Mortimer) is a plain girl who toils in her family’s hat shop even as her prettier sister and mother lead more exciting lives elsewhere. She hears about the wizardry and spells plaguing the land but feels she’s safe because wizards only go after beautiful girls. While out in the town (sometime like a European city circa 1890) she finds herself pestered by some soldiers, rescued by a strange young man again and then in danger when that strange young man realizes he is being followed by even stranger black blobby characters. Sophie thinks she’s escaped her brush with magic after the young man whisks her through the air and then drops her on a nearby balcony. But later, while she’s alone at the shop, an impossibly fat woman comes in and casts a spell, leaving the teenaged Sophie a wizened 90-year-old woman. Knowing only that the Wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) is responsible for her aged state, Sophie (Jean Simmons) pluckily heads out for the Waste, a barren landscape somewhat resembling the moors of Bronte description. She doesn’t find the witch right away, but she does find the giant moving castle that belongs to Howl (Christian Bale), a feared wizard who, as it turns out, is the very same handsome man she met back in the city. She also meets Calcipher (Billy Crystal), the fire demon who, by burning, generates the energy to move the house and heat the water. (In an animation rarity, Crystal plays a comic sidekick that actually doesn’t detract from the main story with his hamming.)

All in this house seem to be under one kind of spell or another — Howl’s, refreshingly for a handsome hero, is both cowardice and vanity. The search for the assorted people who can undo the curse is temporarily stalled by a war between Sophie’s country and the neighboring one, a war which all in the movie consider pointless and absurd.

That Sophie falls in love with Howl is perhaps the most perplexing part of the movie. He’s played as a rather callow, unsympathetic teenager of a character where as Sophie is a spunky girl who, especially in her incarnation as an old woman, seems completely free of fear. We come away from the film thinking that she’s a smart, special girl — one far too good for a wizard whose best attribute seems to be his ability to fly.

Howl’s Moving Castle will likely bore and confound children 7 and younger — though it my find fans in kids who like fairy tales and subdued watercolor style of animation. For older kids, Howl’s Moving Castle is like two hours of a superb storytime, with characters and events that excite even when they don’t entirely make sense. Adults are likely to appreciate the movie the best — both for its exquisitely lovely art and its weirdly compelling story.

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