Climb Aboard 'Howl's Moving Castle'

Climb Aboard 'Howl's Moving Castle'
A hulking castle that walks on chicken legs houses the wizard Howl in the animated film Howl's Moving Castle directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Copyright: ©2004 Nibariki TGNDDDT.

It is atruth universally acknowledged among moviegoers that the onscreen adaptation ofa novel will basically blow. Not so with Academy Award-winning director HayaoMiyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle.

Theanimated film, which opens in theaters on June 10, summarily outstrips theyoung adult fantasy novel of the same name on which it's based, even if it hasa tendency to dive into saccharine sentimentality in typical Miyazaki fashion.

The bonesof the original, written by British author Diana Wynne Jones, are all there: Sophie(voiced by Emily Mortimer in the English-language version) is a young woman whois transformed into a humpbacked crone (voiced by two-time Oscar nominee JeanSimmons) by the malicious Witch of the Waste (Oscar nominee Lauren Bacall). Shuffling languorously past the outskirts of townwhile muttering encouragements to herself, "Grandma" Sophiedecides to search for and enlist the aid of the infamous--and excruciatinglyvain--wizard Howl (Batman Begins' ChristianBale).

The greaterpart of the movie, however, is consummate Miyazaki,the "auteur of anime" responsible for such cinematic gems as My Neighbor Totoro,Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke,and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away.Instead of the wide-eyed footmen Jones describes, for instance, Miyazaki gives the Witchof the Waste oily, amorphous henchmen with the sheen and consistency of meltedtar. They lumber along cobblestone paths and ooze through cracks in the wallwith sluggish but frightening ease.

WhileJones' Howl's degenerates into a oppressive tangle of plot turns and non sequiturs, Miyazaki prunes the novel's excess verbiagewith a meditative, almost Zen-like mastery. The result is a delicate koan thatquestions if love is truly, as the old chestnut goes, only skin deep. For as we soon discover, Sophie isn't the only one under a spell.

UnlikeJones' Sophie, who turns tail and hides from an enchanted, turnip-headedscarecrow that insists on stalking her, Miyazaki'sSophie welcomes the silent but steady companion. It is this Sophie's gentlekindness--and by extension, the story's clarion call of the importance of "innerbeauty"--that rehabilitates a villain, unravels a mystery and forges severalhappily-ever-afters (come now, were you honestlyexpecting any less?).

In another majordeparture from the Jones' book, Miyazaki'sHowl's centers on a war between twofeuding nations. Against darkened skies, Howl, in bird-human hybrid form,swoops angrily over scorched vistas of devastated towns. As he tries to blowapart the imperial airships responsible for the wreckage, the anti-war messageis unmistakable, and unsurprising, considering that Miyazakihimself grew up the post-war tumult and desolation of post-war Japan.

The story'strue central character isn't Sophie, but Howl's moving castle itself, whichfunctions as both the setting of many scenes and the primary mode oftransport--a magical door opens up into different locales depending on where thepointer of a multicolored dial is resting. The castle of Jones'imagining has a description that's disappointing spare--a "tall black castle ...blowing clouds of black smoke from its four tall, thin turrets."

Miyazaki, however, presents us with a huffingand puffing, looming bulwark of a castle darkened with a patina of filth and assembledwilly-nilly out of what resembles salvaged scrap metal and junkyard remains. Balancedprecariously on a set of giant, mechanical chicken haunches that crash determinedlythrough the countryside, it's the type of mobile quarters a steampunk Baba Yagawould elect, considering the Russian folklore character's obvious influence onthe castle's design. Similarly, Miyazaki draws heavily upon fairytalearchetypes not found in Jones' own book--and as anyone with a rudimentaryknowledge of fairytales knows, only true love wields the power to break the spell.

Produced byPixar Animation Studio's John Lasseter--ironic sincePixar helped sound the death knell for 2-D animation--and directed by Pixar's Pete Doctor and Disney's Rick Dempsey, theEnglish-language cast also includes Josh Hutchersonas Markl, Howl's young apprentice, the lovablyirascible Billy Crystal as the lovably irascible fire demon Calcifer,and Blythe Danner making a sort-of cameo as the King's formidable headsorceress Madame Sulliman.

(Howl's Moving Castle opens June 10. Running time: 119 minutes, PG).

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