This imaginative animated film from Japan’s Studio Ghibli is the latest to be directed by legendary graphic artist Hayao Miyazaki, who gave us “Spirited Away” and “Nausicca of the Valley of Wind”, among many others. It’s Miyazaki’s take on the English author Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel for young people. On the eve of war between young Sophie’s village and another, she is transformed into an old lady by a witch’s curse. The elderly Sophie sallies forth from her village on foot in search of a way to lift the curse. On her journey she encounters the titular magic castle, which shakes the surrounding hillside as it stomps about on stilt-like legs, and in which resides Howl, a dashing young wizard who once was apprentice to the King’s sorceress until his hubris and his unwillingness to be a tool of war forced him into exile.
I saw the English-language version of the film. As a proper film snob, I usually chafe volubly at dubbed versions of foreign films, but “Howl” is animation after all, and besides, its characters are meant to be English-speaking. I liked the British actresses Emily Mortimer (as the young Sophie) and the venerable Jean Simmons (as the elderly Sophie), but some of the other performances smacked too much of Disney-type cliché for my taste (Disney distributes Studio Ghibli’s films in the U.S. and many other countries).
The film has a complexity of character. Our heroes’ nemeses are not uncomplicatedly evil and though Howl is the putative good guy, he is feared by the villagers for “stealing young girls’ hearts”. Further, his hatred of war increasingly threatens to consume him, transforming him into a monstrous raven as he flies by night over the war zone, and he is less and less able to return to human form. You won’t see these particular animated characters licensed to Burger King ads anytime soon.
A storehouse of mystery and painstakingly hand-crafted images, the work of Studio Ghibli stands in marked contrast to the paucity of imagination of much contemporary CGI animation.
- Jun 25, 2005