Monday, August 31, 2009

“I don't cook! I'm a scary and powerful fire demon!”

Giving straight-up comedy a break, we turn to Japan and master animator Hayao Miyazaki and his 2004 work, Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle). Being an animation fan, I was aware of Miyazaki, but haven’t seen any of his films before.

Based on a novel, this story follows a young girl in a vaguely Victorian fantasy world where wizards and witches can find work for the government. The girl, meek and timid, is rescued from an uncomfortable situation by a charismatic wizard who can walk on air. After he leaves, she gets cursed into an old woman by a witch looking for the wizard, and eventually stumbles upon and takes residence in the wizard’s castle, a strange, demon-powered mess of metal and wood with legs. As the two characters get to know each other, they find themselves caught up in the middle of a war.

*Note* I’ll be using the English voice cast here, since A) that’s how I saw it, and B) it is based on a novel written in English.

Sophie: Young version voiced by Emily Mortimer, old version by Jean Simmons (the veteran British actress, not the KISS frontman). Sophie’s a timid, shy girl who works in a haberdasher’s (hat shop) and is convinced she’s plain looking at best. After a chance encounter with Howl gets her cursed by a witch, she becomes an old woman, and the revelation is heartbreaking. Tremendously sympathetic performances from both actresses, along with the animation quality make Sophie an incredibly deep character. She really wants to undo the curse, but along the way, falls in love with Howl.

Howl: voiced by Christian Bale (Yes, that one) Howl is a powerful, but haunted wizard. He’s under some kind of curse/condition that he won’t reveal, but it seems everyone and their mother is looking for him either for help or revenge. His castle has legs so it can keep him on the move, and his door has a dial that can open up other doors in other cities. Usually laid back, he’s also an audacious free spirit who likes transforming into a bird-like form to fly around.

The Witch of the Wastes: Lauren Bacall (Yes, that one) voices an old, vindictive, formerly beautiful witch that was once Howl’s lover, until he spurned her. She’s the one who curses Sophie.

Madame Suliman: Voiced by Blythe Danner (yet another veteran actress) she’s an official in the kingdom and trying to get Howl to show up for the war effort. She’s not a nice lady and has an army of black blobby humanoids that wear pork-pie hats and may or may not still be human. They’re freaky.

Calcifer: A fire demon voiced by Billy Crystal, Calcifer’s a little guy in a fireplace that provides the steering and propulsion for the castle and has a direct connection to Howl’s condition. He’s the first one inside to meet Sophie, and the two build up a banter-based relationship. He gets most of the best comedic lines.

Markl: Josh Hutcherson voices Howl’s apprentice, a kid with a cloak that can disguise him as a dwarf with a big bushy beard.

Turniphead: The movie’s true badass is a cursed scarecrow with a turnip for a head. Mute but capable of expressing himself by hopping around, he wanders the wastes and helps Sophie at every turn. Turniphead gets shit done.

Jaw dropping. Quite literally this is a visual masterpiece. The backgrounds are lovingly detailed, characters are nuanced and the moving castle itself is a staggeringly successful merging of 2-D and 3-D art that’s a joy to watch moving around. It is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest mechs I’ve seen.

The pacing of the film is a bit on the slow side, but even during those scenes, there’s enough eye candy to keep your attention.

The novel is by Diana Wynn Jones, and I’ve never read it so I can’t say what Miyazaki changed for his script. Regardless, the film features very strong characterizations that make you care about what happens on screen. The villains get a bit grotesque, but they’re never cardboard moustache twirlers. The magic involved is both practical and inventive, and Sophie’s reactions of wonder to them are great.

The score by Joe Hisaishi works incredibly well, providing ample cues of ADVENTURE! and Romance.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a visual masterpiece. I was thoroughly impressed by that, and in addition to stunning visuals, it was full of well developed characters and an interesting story. Most assuredly worth a viewing.

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