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Howl's Moving Castle: Special Edition

Feature
Once upon a time, a simple hat maker named Sophie ends up taking a walk through the air with a handsome and mysterious wizard, who unbeknownst to her is named Howl. When one of Howl’s many enemies, the evil Witch of the Waste, confronts Sophie later that night, there is a minor argument. The jealous witch cruelly casts a curse, turning the young beauty into an elderly woman. Not wanting to concern her family and friends, Sophie takes to the hills in search of a cure.

Through chance, Sophie stumbles upon the wizard Howl’s moving castle, a magical fortress of mystery and fascination. Within the castle she befriends Calcifer (the fire demon that makes the fortress work), Markl (Howl’s young apprentice) and is reintroduced to the master himself. However there is little time for civilities; a war rages across the land and all wizards have been called to action. To make matters worse, Sophie finds herself unable to tell anyone about her curse.

Howl's Moving Castle: Special Edition
I like Hayao Miyazaki films. I like them a lot. I like their artistry, their pacing, and their ability to be innocent and wise, epic and intimate. Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away are three of my all time favourite animated films. It goes then without saying that my opinion of Miyazaki’s latest would be a skewed one. Howl’s Moving Castle is by no means a shocking deviation or revelation and follows along the lines of the majority of the director’s work.

Favourite themes are again revisited. Our heroin gets through her hardships by helping others, her heart of gold taming even the most ferocious beasts. She is joined by a series of sidekicks, most of them adorable creatures of few words, who would give their lives in her name. There is an entirely futile war tearing innocent people apart. There is a lead male whose lust for power has blinded him to the important things in life. Most importantly among these however, is the fact that none of the protagonists or antagonists are entirely evil and every one of them is capable of redemption by the film’s end.

This particular film is based on anther author’s work, but still fits very snugly into the filmmaker’s repertoire. This comforting revisit of past themes ends up being the film’s chief shortcoming. It is hard to get too excited about film for the same reasons it is hard to get too excited about remakes; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Most of what makes the film special is undeniably reminiscent of other, better films.

Howl's Moving Castle: Special Edition
However, Howl’s Moving Castle is by no mean a failure. To the contrary, it is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. The illustration and animation are wondrous and mesmerising. The fantastic beauty is gracefully contrasted by larger than life war sequences. These scenes of carpet bombed, picturesque landscapes sober the mood without ruining it, revealing Miyazaki’s maturity and harkening back to his Manga masterpiece Naasica of the Valley of the Wind - which was made into a relatively disappointing film early in the director’s career. Oh, but those landscapes before they get bombed, lovely, just lovely. The theme of magic is always a fun one too.

Miyazaki’s real gift is the dreamlike quality he furnishes his films with. Howl’s Moving Castle is not lacking in this capacity, and is eerily hypnotising at times. The entire movie seems to float, from the cinematography to the backgrounds and the meandering story line. I did not care for the characters as much as those in Miyazaki’s magnum opuses, yet their aloof nature actually added to the film’s capricious nature. Even sequences of violence feel breezy and detached, in a good way.

Basically Howl’s Moving Castle is a sweet morality play with a semi-bland lead, charming supporting characters, and achingly gorgeous animation. So it is pretty much just like every other film Hayao Miyazaki has ever made.

Howl's Moving Castle: Special Edition
Video
The feature can be found on three of the four discs in this set (more on that in the audio and extras categories). Each transfer appears to be identical. Colours are bright and sharp. There is no obvious edge enhancement or digital compression issues, though a few cases of digital blocking are present. Due to the film’s age, the transfer is very clean and nary a smidgen of grain or artefacting. The colourful depth of field is so gorgeous that it can appear three-dimensional. Because Howl’s Moving Castle is animated and mastered this year, its image is second only to purely computer created features like Finding Nemo or Revenge of the Sith in crispness of image.

Audio
Here is where my review gets tricky. When first presented with a four-disc set of a Japanese film, I was admittedly intimidated, that is until I realized that three of the four discs contained the film. Why would they include the same film on three discs, you ask?

Disc one features the film in its original Japanese audio, presented in lush DTS ES 6.1. It sounds great. The music soars, the sound effects engulf, and the bombs rattle the room. As I’m sure most readers know, animated films benefit from not having to mix any on set sound, making the mixing of a really nice surround track. Discouragingly, this disc does not include any subtitles and I couldn’t face watching the entire film without the benefit of knowing what the characters were saying. After all, it is not like this was a Godzilla movie.

Howl's Moving Castle: Special Edition
This brings us to the second disc, which is presented, in Japanese, English, French, Mandarin and Cantonese Dolby Surround. Now, these all sound all right, kind of akin to really nice digital cable, but pale when compared to the Japanese DTS track. This begs the question; do I give the DVD a mediocre sound rating because I couldn’t understand its language of origin? I suppose that would be wrong. I will say that the English dub is outstanding though, featuring some choice talent including Batman himself, Christian Bale as Howl, living legend Lauren Bacall as the wicked witch of the waste, and everyone’s favourite Oscar host Billy Crystal as the fire demon Calcifer.

Extras
So when is a four disc special edition not all that special? When everything could have fit onto a single disc. Not that I’m an expert in the ways of digital compression but I’ve seen plenty of single disc sets featuring multiple language tracks and angles. I suppose the stellar DTS track might’ve taken up a bit of room but this has got to be a record for unnecessary discs.

The special features are mostly split over the third and forth disc and are almost entirely in Japanese with no English subtitles. Due to this language barrier, I was not able to exactly enjoy the extras enough to review them fairly, but I’ll do my best.

Disc three features the option to watch the entire film as storyboards. This is a welcome feature, if not a little excessive, as I am not sure I know anyone willing to sit though almost two hours of storyboard footage. It is not clear if these are Miyazaki’s own drawings. This disc also houses a series of Studio Ghibli trailers, including one for Triplets of Bellville (which must’ve been distributed by Ghibli in Japan) and one for the Ghibli Collection.

Howl's Moving Castle: Special Edition
Disc four features release footage from around the world, followed by interviews. The MoMA premier has some interviews with members of the English voice crew but unfortunately not Christian Bale, who was probably in the middle of jumping the roofs of Gotham at the time. The San Francisco premier is at Pixar Studios, who were partly responsible for the English dub. Disc four also features a few SFX studio samples, basically revealing how the animation crew utilised computer technology to enhance their work.

The official release lists some features I either missed due to the language problem or that weren't actually on any of the discs.

Overall
When an average entry into a director’s filmography is this good, it is hard to complain. Howl’s Moving Castle is a beautiful piece of work, with a somewhat empty core, but plenty left to love. This four disc special edition isn’t exactly end-all, or quite worth the steep price tag but the film itself is a worthy entry to any animation lover’s collection.

You can purchase this title for ¥8925 from CD Japan.


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