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With: (English voices) Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Emily Mortimer
Written by: written by Hayao Miyazaki, based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
MPAA Rating: PG for frightening images and brief, mild language
Language: English
Running Time: 110
Date: 05/09/2004

Howl's Moving Castle (2005)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Moving' Pictures

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Hayao Miyazaki's new film Howl's Moving Castle is so good that it shames virtually every animated film made since Miyazaki's last film, Spirited Away, graced movie screens in 2002.

If nothing else, it proves to Hollywood that its recent failure in the animated realm comes not from old-fashioned hand-drawn animation but from its severe lack of imagination and over-reliance on fart jokes and pop culture references.

The first of Miyazaki's films to be based on a book, Howl's Moving Castle quickly establishes itself with Miyazaki's personal signature, bursting with enough ideas and imagination to make up half a dozen summer movies.

It begins, as most Miyazaki stories do, with a shy young girl, Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer). She works in a hat shop and humbly watches as life passes her by. But one day a handsome fellow -- whom she will come to know as Master Howl (voiced by Christian Bale) -- rescues her from an alleyway altercation and accidentally steers her into all-new problems, involving several ghostly, globular things wearing porkpie hats.

Before she knows it, a witch (voiced by Lauren Bacall) has cursed Sophie and turned her into an old lady (voiced by the legendary Jean Simmons). In an attempt to find the witch, she stumbles upon Howl's moving castle, a rattletrap contraption that roils and jostles its way across the countryside on mechanical feet that resemble a camel's.

The plot grows ever more complicated, and has something to do with lost hearts, a fire spirit named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal), and more magic than you can shake a broomstick at.

Blessedly, Miyazaki doesn't bother to sort out the story using mere logic. He instead goes with his instincts, like a child inventing a playtime universe and making up the rules in the moment. The great filmmaker uses primal forces to tell his story, like wind and cold, feeling your age, or feeling hungry. It's a purely visceral ride.

The filmmaker's most unique attribute, his uncanny sense of space, time and weight, is still here. When Sophie and the witch climb the endless stairs to a royal palace, you feel every straining step.

Unlike most animated films, which feel the need to constantly move at a breakneck pace, Miyazaki loves to sit still from time to time, just listening or watching or waiting, as did the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu before him. It gives viewers a moment to rest and reflect, and it keeps the film from growing tedious.

But when Miyazaki starts moving, it's best to hold on. If the characters fly through the air, we can feel the height and the sensation of floating. Many movies use "roller coaster ride" to describe thrilling sensations, but Miyazaki takes that literally.

Pixar's Pete Docter and Rick Dempsey directed the English voice cast, and they've done another remarkable job. It's great to hear Jean Simmons again, a gorgeous young woman back in the 1940s in David Lean's Great Expectations, Michael Powell's Black Narcissus and Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. Her voice still sparkles today.

DVD Details: Disney and Pixar have done another impressive job on this, the latest Miyazaki two-disc DVD set. The movie comes in the new English-dubbed version, the original Japanese and a French version, with subtitles. There's a very touching little video documenting Miyazaki's visit to the Pixar studios, and an interview with Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) who directed the American actors here, trailers and storyboads.

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