Monday, November 17, 2008
One of the great discoveries of this year for me was Hayao Miyazaki. For years I'd heard of his films My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, but never bothered to check them out. When I did, I wanted to kick myself for not watching them sooner. Miyazaki has an innate gift for capturing the spirit of childhood, something few, if any, other directors can. Japan is still a chauvinsitic society and the vast majority of animated films focus on male characters, so I was incredibly surprised to see how feminist Miyazki's work was. In his films, female characters would discover a fundamental truth about themselves, growing up while still remaining children. Working my way through his filmography, I popped in Howl's Moving Castle with relish. Sadly, it did not meet expectations.
The film centers on Sophie, a young hat vendor who is literally swept off her feet by the wizard Howl. This angers the Witch of the Waste, who loves Howl and turns Sophie into an old woman out of jealousy. Hoping to break the curse, Sophie tracks down Howl's castle, which roams the landscape, a behemoth on spindly, chicken-like legs. Inside, she meets Howl's companions, a young boy named Markl and a fire demon named Calcifer. We quickly learn that the residents of the castle have curses of their own and are unable to fix themselves, much less Sophie. Nevertheless, she stays on as a cleaning lady.
Soon, the plot begins to diverge. Howl receives a summons from the king; he is going to war and needs his trained wizards to help. Howl, an ardent pacifist (or a coward, when you consider his general personality), tries to weasel his way out of going by sending Sophie in his stead. This results in a second main plot, one that puts forward an overt anti-war message. This wouldn't have been a problem if it fit into Sophie's story or if it was the only A plot, but the disparity of the two storylines ensures that neither is explored properly.
And that is the ultimate failing of the movie. Whereas Hiyazaki's other films weave messages so perfectly in the mix that they're more intelligent and subtle than most adult drama, Howl's message is only skin deep. Sophie's story is clearly a reminiscience on age, while Howl's is one of the futility of war. Like the titular castle, the movie seems to be cobbled together by parts that don't really fit, and the whole time you're just waiting for it to crumble.
This is certainly one of Miyazaki's most beautiful films, but pretty films are never worth repeat watches; compare this to Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, multlayered tapestries that captured the grandeur and simplicity of life and the shallowness of Howl is all the more glaring. And what of Sophie? Miyazaki's work has always been a breath of fresh air not only for its originality and visual splendor, but for its overt feminism, a rarity in both the still-chauvinistic Japanese culture and in children's films in general. Sophie seems like the latest strong heroine, but through the course of the film becomes more of a plot device than a protagonist; she exists almost outside of the plot, gently guiding it to its next checkpoint. At the end of a Miyazaki film, the hero has learned a fundamental truth about herself and is stronger for it. What has Sophie learned by the end: don't get cursed by witches? Do be loved by a wizard? I don't really know.
And what's up with the dub cast? Disney's done a great job finding the perfect voice cast to dub Miyazaki's other films into English, to the point that they are the only foreign films I not only enjoy dubbed, but possibly prefer, but, with the exceptions of Jean Simmons and Christian Bale, the actors are terribly miscast. Billy Crystal giving a demon from the stars a New York accent? The bit parts sounding like a bad RPG video game? Someone dropped the ball
As many faults as I found, I was still entertained somewhat. I'd still recommend this purely because kids would love it. Parents might too, but anyone who's followed Miyazaki's work might be very disappointed.