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Once upon a time, a simple hatmaker named Sophie (Chieko Baisho/Emily Mortimer) ends up taking a walk through the air with a handsome and mysterious wizard, who, unbeknownst to her, is named Howl (Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale). When one of Howl’s many enemies, the evil Witch of the Waste (Akihiro Miwa/ Lauren Bacall), 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 (Chieko Baisho/Jean Simmons). 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 (Tatsuya Gashuin/Billy Crystal), Markl – Howl’s young apprentice (Ryunosuke Kamiki/Josh Hutcherson), 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
 Howl's Moving Castle
Howl’s Moving Castle was, coincidentally, the first Hayao Miyazaki film I ever reviewed for DVDActive (not to mention one of the first in a long line of import discs I kind of miss reviewing). I looked back at my old review, written upon my first viewing of the film back in 2005, and realize that my opinion on its quality has changed, though my opinion of its shortcomings have not. Howl’s Moving Castle is sort of a greatest hits montage of Miyazaki’s career – he revisits and fine-tunes his favourite, oft-explored themes, character types, and images to the point of cliché. The plot centers on a young female protagonist (trapped in an old woman’s body, granted). Our heroine helps herself through 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. There is an entirely futile war tearing innocent people apart and causing great damage to the natural world. The secondary lead is a magically-endowed male antihero whose powerful strive for greatness has blinded him to the important things in life. None of the protagonists or antagonists are entirely good or evil and every one of them is capable of redemption by the film’s end. At times, the greatest hits mentality verges on fan-service, similar to Takashi Miike’s post- Audition films, where the director was informed a movie he assumed was a melodrama was actually a very popular horror film, leading him to attempt to reproduce what he thought people liked about his movie. On the other hand, Miyazaki, unlike Miike, has never been one to tailor his art to his audience’s whims. He’s also not the type to make a movie for the sake of making a movie.

This film also has the unfortunate distinction of following Spirited Away, itself something of a greatest hits package, but one that feels more like a culmination of the films that came before it, rather than an attempt at recapturing past glory. The bar Miyazaki set himself with Spirited Away was better served with a follow-up like Ponyo, which, despite being a patently Miyazakian motion picture, is a different experience with a different look, aimed at a younger viewers. In retrospect, I realize that Howl’s Moving Castle would’ve worked better as a sentimental return to the director’s more ‘adult’ styles/ideas, had it been released after Ponyo and, with enough years between me and the release of both films, I find myself capable of re-contextualizing Howl’s as less the disappointing follow-up to Spirited Away and more of a Miyazakization of pre-existing material. There are slivers of Alice in Wonderland imbedded in Spirited Away, but it was mostly a personal twist on mythological ideas – Howl’s Moving Castle is a literal adaptation of British writer Diana Wynne Jones’ novel. The only other film Miyazaki has both written and directed based on pre-existing material is Kiki’s Delivery Service (he also co-wrote The Secret World of Arrietty, based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers). I had never considered comparing the two films and realize both are distinctly Ghibli-flavoured takes on stories inspired by the European equivalents of the things that originally inspired Miyazaki. It’s also no coincidence that I find these two movies the most difficult to critically parse.

 Howl's Moving Castle
 Howl's Moving Castle
The tone of the film is still a bit tricky. It exudes the calm warmth that defines much of Miyazaki’s best work. The sweet bits are appropriately sweet, the scary bits are appropriately scary, and the funny bits are appropriately funny. The issue is with frequency – nothing is ever quite sweet/funny/scary/dramatic enough. Miyazaki has so many ideas in the air that the film feels too episodic – and, despite the swath of stuff going on, the pacing is still somehow languid. The mysteries of the war are so veiled that they become undefined, amorphous blobs within the plot that don’t really connect to Sophie. Perhaps the Jones’ book should’ve been adapted as a full animated series, because, as a standalone feature, the whole affair seems structurally muddled and underdeveloped at the same time. The third act is especially disorderly as it drives towards a climax that never quite comes together. There’s definitely more here to be explored. Fortunately, in revisiting the film, I find that the characters, recycled or not, are incredibly engaging, even the ones that don’t talk.

 Howl's Moving Castle
 Howl's Moving Castle

Video


Despite dismissing Howl’s Moving Castle’s tonal and structural qualities, I’ve never downplayed its brilliant visual achievements. From a purely technical standpoint – animation quality, background detail, and complexity of on-screen elements – this is arguably Miyazaki’s triumph. The Ghibli films all lend themselves to a 1080p experience, but his later movies in particular are so overwhelmed with fine details that they beg for transfers unfettered by the limitations of standard definition. The various DVD versions of Howl’s Moving Castle (of which I’ve personally seen two – the Japanese collector’s edition and Disney’s release) have been very satisfying, but, unlike Disney recent Laputa: Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro Blu-rays, the difference between SD and 1080p on this disc is a pretty wide gulf. I don’t have to discuss the intricacies of this transfer’s grain structure and the uncompressed qualities that would go missing on smaller sets/monitors, because there’s no way to miss the intensity of the details here.

One of the most impressive things about the film is the blending of painted backgrounds and pen-and-ink cell foregrounds. Usually, the difference between these elements is so obvious that it practically defines the Ghibli style, but here, there are several sequences where the elements are almost impossible to discern, even with the massive uptake in detail. Howl’s bedroom is a good example of the extreme complexity the transfer is capable of. This HD transfer also blows DVD versions away in terms of colour quality. I hadn’t really thought of Howl’s Moving Castle as a particularly colourful movie, because so much of the film takes place either inside the castle or in The Wastes, which are both dark locations. I forgot that the cities are practically gaudy in their vivid and broad palettes and that the nature shots are brilliantly green and blue. The bleak, darkened battlefields are deeply black without losing layered detail or risking the fiery highlights. On Blu-ray, these hues throb out of the screen without bleeding or any remarkable noise (some of the darkest greens and browns are a little bit grimy), nor do the sharply cut edges and convoluted textures have any notable edge enhancement.

 Howl's Moving Castle
 Howl's Moving Castle

Audio


Since Miramax borked the US release of Princess Mononoke, all of Studio Ghibli’s US releases have featured all-star voice casts and since Spirited Away Disney’s English dubs have been top-notch, high class productions (though not all have been supervised by Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, they’ve featured generally the same technicians). Spirited Away is probably the only case where I’ve actually preferred an English dub to a Japanese one, but, in every case that followed, I’ve found myself more or less satisfied by the quality of the English option. Howl’s Moving Castle miscasts Christian Bale as Howl and some of the American cast has issues with the tonality of their voices (always an issue for adult characters in Miyazaki films, who are largely very understated people), making it one of the weaker English dubs, so I tend to recommend the Japanese version in this case without even comparing the sound quality of the two tracks. Of course, when I do compare the tracks, I find differentiations difficult – aside from the languages, of course.

Unlike other recent Disney releases of catalogue Ghibli output, Howl’s Moving Castle was made with modern 5.1 sound in mind, since the soundtrack was first developed for the Japanese release. The aural sensation is more intense, directional enhancement is more regular, and dynamic range is wider than all of those older Ghibli catalogue releases. Generally speaking, the world of Howl’s Moving Castle is just more lively than the worlds of Totoro or Laputa, including its thick layers of city noise, natural ambience, wiring machinery, and, of course, the sounds of war. Airplanes are constantly buzzing overhead and the depressing firefights vibrate with bass. Joe Hisaishi’s score is expertly blended into both tracks. The music sits nicely below the dialogue and is plenty bombastic during Howl and Sophie’s more dramatic moments.

Extras


Extras begin with a Behind the Microphone (9:00. SD) featurette that includes interviews with dub co-producers Rick Dempsey and Ned Lott, co-directors Pete Docter and John Lasseter, script adapters Cindy and Don Hewitt, and voice actors Christian Bale, Josh Hutcherson, Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, and Blythe Danner. This is augmented with an interview with Docter (7:20, SD) and Hello Mr. Lasseter: Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar (16:30, HD), both from the Japanese collector’s edition DVD. The brief extras are finished off by a series of trailers and TV spots, and an option to watch the film in storyboard form.

 Howl's Moving Castle
 Howl's Moving Castle

Overall


Howl’s Moving Castle is proof that, even while stumbling though overly-busy plots and repetitive themes, Hayao Miyazaki makes beautiful and moving motion pictures on a level far beyond most animated and live-action filmmakers. The gorgeous and complex visuals here make for a particularly brilliant Blu-ray disc, possibly the best of Disney’s Ghibli collection. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is also especially strong, thanks to the modern 5.1 sound design. The promotional-based extras are all old news and pretty bland, but most of us don’t expect much in the way of special features from these releases, so this is more than forgivable.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and original Disney DVD release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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