DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)

The latest animation fantasy from Japan's Miyazaki

Published on March 12, 2006

Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)
Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)


Anime directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Voices: Jean Simmons, Billy Crystal, Christian Bale, Blythe Danner, Lauren Bacall
Studio: Studio Ghibli/Pixar/Disney 41399 (2 discs)
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: English DD 5.1, Japanese DD 5.1, French DD 5.1
Subtitles: English
Extras: Behind the Microphone (recording English soundtrack); Interview with Pete Docter of Pixar Studios; Miyazaki Visits Pixar; TV spots & trailers (English & Japanese); Complete storyboard on Disc 2 with soundtrack
Length: 118 minutes
Rating: *****

Disney is very fortunate to be bringing the amazing work of animation genius Miyazaki to a wider English-speaking audience via both theatrical and DVD presentation – Disney’s own recent work pales in comparison. This is the latest feature from the creator of the 2002 Academy Award winner for animation features, Spirited Away, and at the same time several other past Miyazaki features are being made available on DVD.

Miyazaki has outdone himself this time by creating a fantasy world quite different from what he’s done before and from what anybody else is doing.  His tale has plenty of adventure and humor, and even some slightly dark elements a la Tim Burton, but it has more heart than the competition and the rules of life it teaches are more intrinsic to the story, more reality-based, and less pounded-over-the-head than any typical Disney feature.

The world Miyazaki has created combines realistic elements of different periods and cultures with magic and fairytale.  Some Miyazaki devices follow thru from his other stories, especially a young person as the main character – Sophie – and characters putting spells on one another and breaking them. He loves 19th century European culture , and places his story in that environment, but with sci-fi-ish vehicles and planes powered by steam engines – not to mention the moving castle of the film’s title, which is powered by a fire demon (very humorously voiced by Billy Crystal). Disturbing scenes of warfare between the fantasy country and its neighbor make one think of the permanent impression on Japanese consciousness of the WW II experience. Some of the images of a sky full of bombers reminded me of H. G. Wells’ Things To Come.

Sophie is a quiet girl working in a hat shop who is befriended by the young and handsome wizard Howl. The Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall’s voice) is jealous because Howl was once interested in her, and she causes Sophie to turn into a bent old woman. Sophie is again befriended in her wandering by a hopping scarecrow who leads her to Howl’s moving castle, where she enters and assumes the role of housecleaner.  It’s an entirely new world of magic and spells, with the fire demon, Howl’s child apprentice, and a magic doorway which as various settings are dialed up leads to wildly different “portals” outside. Sophie’s persistence is eventually rewarded with breaking of both her spell and the scarecrow’s, and helping both Howl and the Witch too.  Sophie seems to partially gain some of her youth back at certain times during the drama until the spell is completely released, but I’d have to see it a third time to figure out the connection with the plot of the changes of appearance. Perhaps it is simply Howl’s ability to see thru the spell that she is in fact a beautiful young lady.

The digital mastering is extremely detailed, colorful and sharp with no noticeable artifacts and the 5.1 soundtrack is very effective, with the symphonic music and sound effects.  Casting for the English dubbing is right on target and adds greatly to the appeal of the film. The various bonus features are well worth viewing, though I can’t imagine many will want to view the entire film as storyboard form only on the second disc.  This is just as masterful a family animated feature as was Spirited Away.

- John Sunier




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