When Oscar season comes around the presumed Awards darling for feature-length animation has long been Pixar and its now annual output of computer-rendered stories aimed at children and adults alike. While I have incredible respect for Pixar and what they do, there's something to be said for any artist who can deliver classic 2D animation where careful attention has obviously been paid to both the rich detail of every frame as well as to crafting stories that overflow with fantastical worlds and creatures. In that field, Hayao Miyazaki has no equal. It's not hyperbole, it's the current reality of animation. Having given us what may very well have been his masterpiece in 1997 with Princess Mononoke and then winning the Oscar for animated features in 2001 with Spirited Away, his next film was Howl's Moving Castle, a story that combined the magic and fantasy of Spirited Away with the political themes of Princess Mononoke for a film of stunning visuals and a story that's as familiar as it is unexpected.
Sophie (Emily Mortimer) seems content to wile away her youth working in her mother's hat shop until a chance encounter with the mysterious wizard Howl (Christian Bale) reveals to her a world of magical possibilities while also putting her on the radar of the feared Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who curses Sophie to become an elderly form of herself (Jean Simmons) and thus forcing her to leave behind everything she knows. Her journey lands her in the moving castle of Howl, about whom horrifying rumors circulate, his apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and the castle's living flame Calcifer (Billy Crystal). In her severely aged state, she takes it upon herself to clean up the disgusting living conditions of the castle and in so doing quickly becomes a trusted friend of Howl and an integral part of the international intrigue that threatens Howl with one of two choices: get involved or lose his magically endowed humanity.
What makes Howl a triumph, beyond the masterful intertwining of the fantastic with the politically realistic, is Miyazaki's animation. At times the attention to detail and the mindblowing number of moving parts in a given frame just seem so complex that it's impossible to imagine the amount of time that went into each second of the film. Spirited Away might have more variety in its collection of fantasy creatures, but when it comes to the diversity of settings and random objects flitting through the screen, Howl's Moving Castle just might be Miyazaki's most ambitious animation undertaking ever. It's a moving work of art with each and every second and you could frame just about every frame of the film on a wall as a beautiful painting unto itself. Even if you abhor Japanese animation, Howl's Moving Castle ought to be seen if for no other reason than the unmatched artistry that it represents.
Disney has done Miyazaki's work a huge service by not going the traditional route of anime dubbing with horribly exaggerated voice acting and instead opting for carefully considered line substitutions and readings that just might be enough to convince purists not to watch it in the original Japanese language with subtitles. Fans might still want to do this as some lines have been altered slightly in their translations due to the syncing of the English dialogue with the mouth movements requiring truncations here and there. It's not a necessity though; Bale, Mortimer, and even the very young Josh Hutcherson deliver exceptional dubbing performances. The stand out of the film, however, has to be Billy Crystal whose performance reminds us why he's considered a tremendous comic talent. He gives the film its best moments of levity to counteract some of the darkest, most somber moments having to do with Howl's fleeting identity.
If Howl's Moving Castle trips up at all, it's in the somewhat cold feeling we're left with. At some point in the final act the gradually warming love story of Sophie and Howl takes a backseat to the political turmoil and Sophie's realization of her destiny in Howl's life, and the whole plot gets a bit complicated. The story resolves in a sensible way that doesn't drop any of the threads, but the heart of the love story gets lost in the shuffle. The ending is still quite rewarding and touching, but the would-be love story feels deflated.
Otherwise Howl's Moving Castle is art as entertainment. You don't just watch this film, you soak it in and you bask in the beauty of Hayao Miyazaki's imagination brought to life with splashes of paint. It's one of the Studio Ghibli films that Blu-ray helps confirm as cinematic brilliance.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The best featurette of the Blu-ray and DVD combo set is easily Pixar's Pete Docter geeking out about Howl's Moving Castle and working with Studio Ghibli to bring the film to American theaters. Tied for second are featurettes wherein Miyazaki visits the Pixar studio and the voice cast talk about how flexible the process of recording for Howl's Moving Castle was.
"Howl's Moving Castle" is on sale May 21, 2013 and is rated PG. Adventure, Animation, Drama, Fantasy. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Written by Hayao Miyazaki, Diana Wynne Jones (novel). Starring Billy Crystal, Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Josh Hutcherson, Lauren Bacall, Jean Simmons.