Based on a British children's book, Howl's Moving Castle is the latest animated feature from Japanese writer and director Hayao Miyazaki, responsible for such visually arresting and delightfully entertaining films as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Miyazaki's previous efforts have deservedly received both popular and critical acclaim, but in Moving Castle, Miyazaki aims to please more the critic than the ordinary moviegoer. Brilliant in many places, the film contains a number of tedious stretches, the consequence of which is a film that is neither particularly rewarding nor especially memorable.
As sumptuous as any of Miyazaki's previous films, Moving Castle is another tale of magical transformation, of a curse of premature old age imposed the young Sophie (Emily Mortimer) by the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). Leaving home, the aged Sophie (Jean Simmons) sets out on her own, makes a number of unexpected friendships, and receives the assistance of a mysterious wizard, Howl (Christian Bale), who offers her refuge in his moving castle.
Miyazaki's visions are the dreams of innocent and essentially happy children, troubled at times by grave and terrifying threats of monsters and destructive wars but able to maintain the sense that all will be well.
There is very little in the way of panic in his characters, even when they face utterly unexpected reversals of fortune. Just after the Witch of the Waste curses Sophie and transforms her into an old woman, Sophie comments, "Just a bad dream. That's all." Skipping any stage of terror or despair, she is soon resigned. "It's not so bad," she says as she addresses herself in a mirror, "Your clothes finally suit you." Later she states, "It's a nice thing getting old. Nothing scares you."
The castle, which protects the wizard Howl from the local ruler's soldiers, itself is a bizarre and ingenious creation. Precariously propped up on chicken legs, the edifice looks like a bunch of teakettles, each with multiple spouts, fused together. The motive force for the castle is a quick-witted fire demon called Calcifer (Billy Crystal).
The chief inhabitant of the castle, the wizard Howl, is an ethereal character, a sort of immature version of Shakespeare's Ariel from The Tempest, a character who desperately wants liberation. To maintain his freedom, Hal uses a series of aliases. Here the film makes a subtle point about the uses and abuses of magic, about the wearing of masks and the playing of roles. There are ethical and human costs, including especially loss of identity, to the adoption of such guises. Those engaged in fierce air wars, scenes of which convey a sense of consuming world war, desperately crave the assistance of Howl's powers; occasionally, Howl cannot avoid fighting. To do battle, he transforms himself into a sort of flying dragon. But the transformation and the battle are not without important consequences. Of the other wizards who participate regularly in battle, Howl warns that eventually they "won't recall they were human." Miyazaki's introduction of these grand, Tolkienesque themes tantalizes but fails to satisfy.
This is one of the places in the film where the traditional Western notion of character formation through habit, through the repetitive choosing of certain kinds of acts, surfaces. Miyazaki tends to emphasize less this side of vice, the side that is to varying degrees under the power of an individual's free will; instead, he highlights the sense of the experience of vice as something that overtakes an individual and possesses the soul, transforming the self into something over which the individual has very little control.
Even in the midst of such horrifying degradation of the human, Miyazaki stresses ordinary virtues, such as patient endurance, kindness, and equanimity. These are not so much versions of Stoic resistance as they are examples of light-heartedness, based on shared recognition that everyone is afflicted with some sort of curse.
There is something wonderfully refreshing and invigorating, almost cleansing, about the imaginative universes that Miyazaki constructs. With magnificent attention to detail, Miyazaki's animation looks less like it has been generated from a computer than by the careful brush strokes a master painter. The cities are especially magnificent; one scene of Sophie riding a cable car away from the city is simply exquisite — not precious or effete but rich, inviting, and compelling.
Like his previous films, this film suggests multiple ways in which the magical world exists just beneath or alongside the everyday world. It also follows Miyazaki's practice of blurring the lines of cause and effect, so that the significance of events, their role in altering the drama and transforming characters is nearly impossible to discern. In this film, however, Miyazaki unduly burdens viewers with long scenes whose connection to the main plot is obscure to the point of fostering indifference. This is a devastating defect for a film whose chief attraction is its ability to enchant.
If Moving Castle has a captivating visual style, intriguing characters, and thoughtful themes, it is, nonetheless, a disappointing film, a film whose pace is at times indulgent, too leisurely. Miyazaki's great gift is for the lost art of childhood wonder, of disarming enchantment. Measured by these exalted standards, Miyazaki's own standards, his latest effort comes up short.