Reviews

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Howl's Moving Castle ticks with nervous energy and unsettledness. These jittery-edged images conjure exquisite rhythms as they approximate children's perspectives.


Howl's Moving Castle (hauru No Ugoku Shiro)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: (English language version) Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Blythe Danner
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2006-03-07
Amazon affiliate
They screened it at Pixar, and I remember just watching, going, "Wow." It felt like a dream.
-- Pixar Animation Studios Director Pete Docter, "Interview with Pete Docter"

It was like she was in my dream, and she actually asked me, "Do you have a wife?"
-- Hayao Miyazaki, on Lauren Bacall

Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle tilts between fantastical beauty and philosophical pondering. Its refusal to be one or the other enhances its charm, as well as your suspicion that it is indeed a work of genius. Designed for young viewers, it also poses difficult questions, framed within kids' contexts but never reductive. Indeed, such framing only makes the questions seem more significant.

The new DVD of Howl's Moving Castle includes a couple of little extras on its primary disc (an interview with Pete Docter, a visit to Pixar by Miyazaki, meaning, he actually appears on film, while John Lasseter performs surprise with the camera rolling). A second disc offers a wondrous set of storyboards for the film on its second disc. (You can run this with a Japanese or English language soundtrack.) The drawings are lovely, pencil and colored chalk, suggesting through simple lines and sound effects (footsteps, planes flying, street clatter) just how complex a child's might be. They open up another way of understanding film.

Loosely adapted from Diana Wynne Jones' children's fantasy novel, the film focuses on the adventures of another serious-minded girl. Sophie (voiced in the English language version by Emily Mortimer) begins the movie as an 18-year-old hatmaker in some undetermined past -- maybe 1940s, sort of urban and early-industrial, during what seems an endless wartime. The titular castle demonstrates the oddness of the moment perfectly, a rickety, clanking and whirring contraption that literally walks about on four spindly metallic legs, clambering across mountainsides and into meadows, and, when directed by a color-coded dial by the front door, landing in various exotic locations.

The owner of this sweetly contraptionish domicile is Howl (Christian Bale), a wizard whose heart has been sucked out by a curse. Endeavoring to redress the lack, he fights good fights and picks up strays to man the castle in his absence. These include a friendly fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal: "He burns me up!") and young apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson). Sophie is the latest addition to this crew, though not in her original form. Cursed by the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall, whom Docter recalls announcing, "Dahling! I was born to play despicable!"), Sophie has become a 90-year-old woman (voiced by Jean Simmons). Unable to identify herself or name the curse, she leaves her mother and sisters (and their haberdashery) to wander the Waste in search of a cure.

When she's kind to a lonely, turnip-headed scarecrow, he leads her to the castle. Feeling inclined to mother the lost souls she discovers inside -- namely, Howl, Calcifer, and Markl -- Sophie also rediscovers her own youth, idealism, and sense of adventure, revealed as she plays Wendy to these Lost Boys. Whenever Howl flits through the household after a night or maybe a week out gallivanting with monsters and warriors, his crew rushes to tend to his needs -- food, bath, heat. What he will learn, of course, is that his primary need is love, and that Sophie is more than willing to grant him. This in part because she spotted him when she was living in a young body (their brief association was the cause of her curse, the Witch of the Waste being jealous of his interest in her), and in part because she comes to appreciate his tantrums and despairs as signs that he needs her, despite his wizardy haughtiness.

Summoned to the palace by the king (or more precisely, the king's sorceress, Madame Suliman, voiced by Blythe Danner), Howl is supposed to offer his service in the interest of the current war project. But he wants a way out of this duty; he's not precisely a conscientious objector, as his conscience seems to have gone the way of his heart, but he does perceive war as a generally bad idea. And so he devises a plan by which Sophie will play his mother and essentially plead his case before the court.

Though Howl promises to accompany her in disguise, in fact, it's hard to tell whether he has held to this word or not, and so she's left to her own witty skills and generous spirit, for a moment, anyway. Her approach to the palace turns into a bizarre contest with the Witch of the Waste, who also wants favors from the sorceress: the extended sequence of two aging female bodies lumbering and puffing up a gigantic staircase hardly seems the stuff of kids' animation, but the very peculiarity of it makes it seem to fit, or really, not fit, as the movie is really a hodgepodge of misfit moments and characters, only occasionally coming together in any conventional sense.

While keeping track of who's cursed whom and who is disguised as what can be confusing, the movie helpfully arranges its pieces as if there are two recognizable forces pitted against one another (at least temporarily): the war-making king and the well-meaning but childishly petulant Howl. Sophie helps to sort out his bad behavior, in part by forgiving and looking after him along with all her other freely adopted charges. Her own transformation also becomes something of a puzzle as, in the film's later stages, she's shifting between forms -- young and old -- as she's shifting places, shifting understandings, and coming to terms with her dedication to Howl, even when he's unpleasant. The embrace of such unconditional love appears to save them both, but at the same time, it exposes them to a range of emotions and desires for which they're not quite prepared.

Like Miyazaki's previous, famously delicate inventions (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind), Howl's Moving Castle ticks with nervous energy and unsettledness. These jittery-edged images conjure exquisite rhythms as they approximate children's perspectives, rendered in low angles and dreamlike movements, as well as unresolvable questions. Challenging the very concepts of war and revenge, Howl's Moving Castle remains restless and unsettling even when the castle stops moving.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image