Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle debuted in extremely limited release this past Friday. How limited? About 36 theatres across North America. The Paramount theatre at John and Richmond in Toronto was quite possibly the only place in all of southern Ontario to show the anime master’s latest work.
Still, it performed remarkably well, taking in $401,000, with a per-theatre take of roughly $11,000. My theatre was decently full, and I hope this means that the movie gets a wider release in the coming weeks. It deserves it.
Thanks to Disney and Pixar, the works of Hayao Miyazaki are getting a fair airing in the North American market. His long animated movies, aimed for children and young adults, have been professionally redubbed with Hollywood actors. I’ve had a chance to see five of Miyazaki’s works, now (Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, NausicaA and finally Howl’s Moving Castle), and I’ve found a number of similarities within Miyazaki’s works, and themes that he likes to return to. For instance:
Miyazaki loves airships. The only time they don’t appear is in Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, and the last one is because this story is a retelling of a Japanese folk tale set in the 12th century. Miyazaki inserts a war into Howl’s Moving Castle, which gives him a good excuse to include great lumbering battleships of the sky. It works best in Castle in the Sky, where the airships are part of a society that hasn’t quite got its feet on the ground, but it also works in Howl’s Moving Castle.
Miyazaki’s stories tend to be anti-war, talk a lot about balance, the coming together of enemies and of the fostering of understanding. This is no surprise given Miyazaki’s Japanese heritage. Just about every movie except Spirited Away have apocalyptic imagery, with Castle in the Sky, NausicaA and (to a lesser extent) Howl’s Moving Castle featuring equivalents to atomic blasts.
Finally, Miyazaki tells his stories with a childlike/dreamlike logic, which is to my mind his works’ greatest strength and their greatest weakness. I wish I could create something half as wildly imaginative and satisfying as Castle in the Sky, but the plots of its other movies, while still satisfying, don’t hold together or make complete dramatic sense. Some characters transform and see the error of their ways too easily. Some plot elements emerge from nowhere, and the story doesn’t end so much as it comes to a halt.
Miyazaki is an artist. I can stare at his movies all day and still be impressed. But sometimes his stories don’t quite come together. So it was with Howl’s Moving Castle, which I still recommend you go see.
What made these characteristics of Miyazaki clear to me was the fact that Howl’s Moving Castle is the first of Miyazaki’s works to adapt a story I’d previously read: a work by British young adult fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones featuring the same name. You can catch my full review here. When reading Wynne Jones, Erin remarked that the author’s work in general, and Howl in particular seemed well suited to Miyazaki. It features the same childlike/dreamlike plot logic, where elements get weaved in and out on strange whims.
The book version of Howl’s Moving Castle is overpopulated with characters. Consider the plotline: The story features Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three sisters, doomed by the magical customs of Ingary to fail as the eldest of three sisters always does. Settling into a life as a hatter — and not noticing that her hats magically confer on their wearers the qualities she describes as she talks to them — she encounters the Witch of the Waste who accuses Sophie of setting herself up to oppose the Witch. The Witch curses Sophie and changes her into an old woman.
Sophie decides that she’s had her run of bad luck, so she shrugs and leaves her home town and goes marching off into the countryside to seek her remaining fortune. There, she encounters Howl’s castle marching across the moors. The wizard Howl is reputed to eat young girls’ hearts, but since Sophie is now an old woman, she doesn’t feel threatened, and she climbs aboard the castle and sets herself up as the cleaning lady. She soon finds that Howl is not as evil as his reputation suggests; that he shamelessly woos the ladies and then loses interest when they start to reciprocate (thus “eating” their hearts).
Howl is on the run from the Witch of the Waste (because he jilted her), and is keeping himself hidden by taking on various aliases in various different towns (which the castle is magically linked to). His castle is powered by a fire demon named Calcifer and is staffed by a young apprentice named Michael (who is in love with one of Sophie’s sisters). Howl is being asked by the King of Ingary to search for the King’s younger brother who has disappeared. Another wizard, Suliman, has himself been lost in the search.
Oh, and did I mention that there is a magically enchanted dog and a magically enchanted scarecrow? And Howl’s former teacher, Mrs. Pentstemmon?
Miyazaki is wise enough to compress this tale for the screen, somewhat. Sophie’s two sisters become one, and their whole identity swap is eliminated. This has the effect of downplaying Howl’s womanizing. The lost prince is still in this picture (barely), and his disappearance starts a war between Ingary and a neighbouring power. This war is an add-on by Miyazaki, and it adds an urgency and a stronger driving force to bring the players together, as well as allowing Miyazaki to indulge in more of his air battleships.
But Miyazaki makes some odd changes to the storyline. Most significant is the complete nullification of the threat the Witch of the Waste poses halfway through the movie, and the elevation of Mrs. Pentstemmon (now named Mrs. Suliman) to primary villain. In the book, Mrs. Pentstemmon sacrifices herself to save Howl from the Witch of the Waste. In the book, Mrs. Pentstemmon is out to rein in the witches and the wizards who she fears are being corrupted by their power — a nice continuation of the book’s other theme of power corrupts, but one which throws many motivations for a loop.
In the movie, the Witch of the Waste is still the one who curse’s Sophie, but by the end of the film, the old, frail, shell of the witch is being cared for by Sophie. I have a hard time believing that. The movie’s changes focuses the character transformation on Howl, which is a good thing, although the loss of Howl’s womanizing angle weakens the dramatic potential of his falling in love with Sophie.
There is still a lot to love about this movie. The animation is spectacular, and the characters that remain on the screen are well voiced. Although cursed, Sophie shifts from old (voiced by Jean Simmons) to young (voiced by Emily Mortimer) both in voice and in appearance as the character gains confidence. That’s a nice touch. The other voice actors (Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste and Christian Bale as Howl) give their roles a lot of depth and have fun doing it.
And then there’s Calcifer, voiced by Billy Crystal. He alone is worth the price of admission.
I think that somebody who hasn’t read the book by Diana Wynne Jones that goes to this movie will enjoy the story and the animation. I think that fans of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel who aren’t particularly upset by changes to a story will enjoy the parts of the novel that do appear alongside Miyazaki’s storyline. I myself, who have talked long and hard about how well films live up to the spirit and the letter of the books they adapt, spent too much time making comparisons and wondering about the merits of Miyazaki’s choices.
Howl’s Moving Castle is not as dramatically sound as Spirited Away or Castle in the Sky. It makes some plot choices that don’t make sense and which will alienate ardent fans of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel. Still, this is unquestionably a Miyazaki film, meaning that it’s automatically better than 75% of what’s now showing. If you are at all a fan of young adult fantasy, or of anime, go see it. You won’t regret it.