Howl's Moving Castle Review

If Princess Mononoke could be read as Nausicaä revisited, does that make Howl’s Moving Castle the new Laputa: Castle in the Sky? Their titles are certainly similar, as are their eponymous creations - Howl offering up a giant creaking mass on four spindly legs – and the connections don’t end there. Director Hayao Miyazaki also appears to be revisiting the milieu of this previous venture, a combination of antiquated period design – all steam engines and intricate shop signs aided and abetted by a lush romantic score - and a fantastical element almost effortlessly interwoven. We not only have the moving castle which gets its name on the poster, but also demons, the Witch of the Waste, top-hatted and sharp-toothed flying creatures, and giant fortresses which patrol the air.

All of which is best described as grand of course, yet Howl’s Moving Castle starts off very small. The primary or at least initial focus is Sophie, the young and unassuming daughter of a small town’s hatter. Following a chance meeting with the infamous Howl – something of a celebrity it would appear, a magician with rock star hair and attendant harlequin jacket – she attracts the unwanted attentions of the Witch of the Waste, a fat necked old woman corrupted at least ten times over by her powers. The result is a curse which sees Sophie aged before her time and so she heads off into exile and the much grander narrative to come, one which swoops all over encompassing both love and war and many a quintessential Miyazaki touch despite being based on a children’s book by British author Dianna Wynne Jones.

Indeed, Sophie may very well be the ultimate Miyazaki lead. Time and again his characters have been defined by the ‘old before their time’ adage – Nausicaä, Laputa, Princess Mononoke – and here it proves to be literally true. Furthermore, she occupies what is very much a Miyazaki world: dense, layered, peppered with attractive details (a fire that eats egg shells!) and providing an immense background to the more fundamental narrative concerns. It’s often as though Howl’s Moving Castle is merely one tale in a much wider canvass; there are plenty of other stories occurring elsewhere it seems, and just occasionally we’re allowed to encroach on them.

So what exactly is Howl’s Moving Castle about? On one level it’s the story of Sophie and her efforts to relieve herself of the curse, even as she seems resigned to it. On another it concentrates on Howl and debunking the mythology which surrounds him; really he’s just a stunted adolescent prone to cowardice and fear who uses magic as another form of make-believe. And then there’s also this full-scale war which occupies the background – and occasionally the foreground – plus numerous borrowings from famed children’s literature: variations on Aladdin and his magic lamp, the characters of The Wizard of Oz, even the Frog Prince.

In other words it’s a rich and constantly surprising work, yet also at times sprawling and oblique. Certainly, it’s not bloated, but then it’s also not as tight as Miyazaki’s previous efforts; the ending in particular feeling premature in some respects as it attempts to satisfy each and every one of its divergent threads. And yet it’s also hard to complain when such grandiosity sparks so much imagination from its director. As we’ve come to expect from Miyazaki, he can keep us enthralled by the most curious of circumstances: two old women struggling to scale an epic flight of steps; an asthmatic dog who spies on his companions; or a scarecrow who cannot utter a word yet nevertheless manages to speak volumes.

The Discs

Released in the UK as a two-disc set courtesy of Optimum Releasing, Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t exactly extras-heavy, but does come with a fine presentation - and one which thankfully is not an NTSC-PAL conversion. Retaining the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (anamorphically enhanced) the film looks to be in splendid condition, demonstrating no grain or damage. Furthermore, the level of detail and clarity is similarly excellent leading to no complaints whatsoever. Indeed, the only element which may put off prospective buyers is the fact that the optional subtitles (hard of hearing dubtitles for the English language version featuring Jean Simmons, Christian Bale and others; literal subtitles for the original Japanese) are of the yellow variety. With regards to the soundtrack, both the Japanese and English versions are here present in DD5.1 mixes and again demonstrate no discernible problems. As such it’s likely to be down to personal preference as to which you go for.

The special features are split over both discs, the first of which comes with the standard Optimum-Ghibli offering of various trailers and the complete storyboards accessible via a multi-angle feature whilst you watch the film. The second disc, on the hand, is the more interesting, containing as it does the interviews and featurettes. Admittedly, none of these are essentials, yet each is welcome nevertheless. The two interviews are with Dianna Wynne Jones and English dub director Pete Doctor (also the director of Monsters Inc.) respectively and in both cases they face puff piece-style questions: “Who is your favourite character?”, “What are your favourite scenes?” and the like. That said, they do at least make the effort with their answers and as such both pieces remain of interest. We learn for example that the original book resulted due to Jones having a milk allergy and that John Lasseter was initially approached to direct the English dub, but declined owing to his involvement in Pixar’s forthcoming Cars.

Lasseter also happens to be the focus of the first of the featurettes, entitled ‘Hello, Mr. Lasseter’. Here we find the director at Pixar studios during a visit from Miyazaki and Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki. For the most part it’s a competently mounted video-shot piece of the visit (Miyazaki gives Lasseter a giant model of the cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro) before concluding with a lengthy-ish interview with the Toy Story director. The other addition, entitled ‘Explanation of CG’, is a more straight forward piece offering various effects breakdowns: how the castle was moved, how flags were animated, how backgrounds were created, etc. etc.

All featurettes and interviews are Japanese produced and as such come with some Japanese dialogue with attendant English subtitles (again in yellow) where applicable. There are no hard of hearing subtitles options for any of the special features.

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Last updated: 05/07/2018 04:50:29

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