Howl's Moving Castle
Hayao Miyazaki, the genius of animated film, has carried us for twenty years along his path of increasingly resonant masterworks; a few years ago they culminated in his greatest film, "Spirited Away." Those of us who revere him have looked forward to his newest, "Howl's Moving Castle," but instead of a masterpiece we have gotten only a near-masterpiece. We're tempted to think: how dare he! But of course even a near-masterpiece is, well, a near-masterpiece; and it would be churlish, as well as stupid, not to be grateful.
Miyazaki has based "Howl's Moving Castle" on a British fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones; I haven't read it and so I can't assign credit or blame to either one, whether for its genius or its failures. The story is about Sophie (voiced in the English-language version by Emily Mortimer), a shy 18-year-old hatmaker in a town located somewhere, I would guess, between old Bavaria and old England. Steam locomotives belch black smoke; wagons and early automobiles share the cobblestone streets. There are rumors of war. One day an elderly lady - the Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall) - comes into the store and in a fit of pique changes Sophie into a 90-year-old crone (now voiced by Jean Simmons). Ashamed of her looks, Sophie flees and discovers a most graceful scarecrow, who leads her to the castle of the title - a fabulously rickety contraption that looks nothing at all like a castle but seems to have been put together out of junked machines, house parts, and God knows what else. And it moves on what appear to be four chicken legs.
Howl (voiced by Christian Bale) is a powerful young shape-shifting wizard whose intentions are good but who has fears that sometimes keep him from doing the right thing. Sophie makes herself the castle's housekeeper, caring for young Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and Calcifer, the flame that propels the moving castle (voiced by Billy Crystal in what I think is a mistaken attempt to provide the kind of jokey lines that Eddie Murphy used to such good effect in "Shrek.") The film follows two or three story lines as war comes, as the magic castle must hide itself, as Sophie makes a visit to the king's wicked minister (Blythe Danner), and as Howl tries to find safety for them all.
And this is where the film becomes unfocused; unlike "Spirited Away" there is no forward motion to the plot; it is a series of episodes that might well stand alone but don't carry us toward a conclusion. We want Sophie restored, but at various times she appears younger, then older again without enough rationale to support Miyazaki's vision. Howl himself does great things but then leaves Sophie to fend for herself; she does so, we can see her gain strength and serenity, but at the same time those qualities seem incidental to the film's own needs. I am not trying to demean the film; every frame has excitement and power and beauty and wit; it wouldn't be a Miyazaki film if it didn't. But the whole is less than the sum of the parts; it's as though he made it too complicated, fell in love with each section, and then tried to staple them together into a coherent whole. There is breathtaking beauty and invention throughout, and some moments of sheer joy as well as fear; certainly the film is not a failure. But as amazing as the experience is for us, watching an imagination at work that goes beyond anything we have ever seen before, I still wish for more. It's selfish, I know, but having seen perfection in "Spirited Away," it's hard to settle for less.