Starring (voices): Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Billy Crystal, Josh Hutcherson, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner
Rated PG for Frightening Images and Brief Mild Language
One of the many, many things I admire about Hayao Miyazaki is that he took chances. I've said it before and I'll say it again and again because it's so rare and so valuable to the film industry and to storytelling in general. They didn't always work ("Lupin the III," "Porco Rosso"), but the results were always at least interesting. However, when they do work, he ended up with something truly special, like "Spirited Away" or "The Wind Rises."
"Spirited Away" didn't exactly make Miyazaki a known name, but it did introduce him to a lot of fans who would have otherwise passed his films up (him winning the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Film certainly helped, although I would argue that he deserved a nomination for Best Director, Screenplay and Picture as well). For fans of his work, "Howl's Moving Castle" was his much anticipated follow-up. I've seen it twice now, and my reaction remains the same: the first two thirds are solid, but not spectacular, while the final act makes almost no sense.
The film takes place in a steampunk version of the turn of the century. Sophie (Mortimer) is a shy, young girl working at a hat shop. One day, she is harassed by two soldiers, only to be saved by Howl (Bale), a wizard with a reputation for eating the hearts of pretty girls (literally). Later that night, a large woman known as the Witch of the Waste (Bacall) puts a curse on her that turns her into an old woman. The newly old Sophie (now voiced by Simmons) seeks out Howl in an attempt to get the curse lifted, but the problem with this specific curse is that she can't talk about it.
"Howl's Moving Castle" has all the hallmarks of a Miyazaki picture: a fantasy setting that is begging to be explored, strange creatures, transformation, an unpredictable plot, magic, and romance. And of course, visually breathtaking animation that is accompanied by Joe Hisaishi's score. And for the first hour, it appears to be another great entry on a sterling resume. Not as good as "Spirited Away" or "Princess Mononoke," but on par with "Castle in the Sky" and "Ponyo."
Then when the film hits the 90 minute mark, it falls apart. When Madame Suliman (Danner), who plays the head of the country's witches and wizards, makes her first appearance, the plot stops making any sense whatsoever. Miyazaki has tried to do too much, and not even he can handle the complex goings on of the final act.
Part of the reason is that Miyazaki fails to establish a clear set of rules of how the world he created works (credit must also go to Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote the book upon which the film is based). This is essential for a film like this to work. Miyazaki gets away with it when he keeps things simple, but when things get more complicated, the story gets out of his control.
At least the voice acting is solid. Jean Simmons, in one of her final films, is terrific as Old Sophie. The bulk of the film is centered around the elderly version of the character, and Simmons does a fine job. Emily Mortimer is as adorable as ever as Young Sophie. Christian Bale, who signed on after seeing "Spirited Away," is less successful. Bale is known for playing dark and intense characters (Batman, anyone?), which is fine here, but there are times when Howl is light and cheerful, and Bale isn't convincing in those times. Lauren Bacall is perfectly villainous as the Witch of the Waste (both she and Miyazaki were fans of each other), and Josh Hutcherson does a solid job as Markl, Howl's wizard-in-training. And Billy Crystal is amusing as Calcifer the fire demon without being too ostentatious.
As flawed as the final act is, I am tempted to recommend "Howl's Moving Castle" anyway. The images are so breathtaking (watching the castle move alone is almost worth seeing the film for), the characters are so appealing, and this world is so intriguing. I am sorely tempted.
I'll split it down the middle and say that if you are in any way curious or intrigued by this film after reading this review, see it.