Not a lot of directors would be brave enough to take on a love story between a girl-turned-old-lady and a wizard missing a vital organ.
But Oscar-winning director/writer Hayao Miyazaki tackles a new fantasy realm in in "Howl's Moving Castle." In this case, it's the world of fantasy dowager Diana Wynne Jones, and he wraps the storyline in humor, romance and genuine flair. No, it's not faithful. But it is fantastic.
Sophie (Emily Mortimer) is a plain, unhappy young woman working in a milliner's shop. But then the evil Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) comes into the shop, and turns her into a hobbled old lady (Jean Simmons). Sophie ends up wandering into the Moving Castle, a chicken-legged chaos machine, and encountering the sexy, immature wizard Howl (Christian Bale), smart-aleck fire demon Calcifur (Billy Crystal), and preteen apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson).
Sophie appoints herself the cleaning lady and starts whipping the castle into shape, trying to deal with Howl's temper tantrums and the rapidly deepening war. And, of course, trying to de-curse herself. But when she runs an errand that Howl is too scared to deal with, she finds that her new boss has some sinister problems of his own -- including a missing heart.
Don't expect much fidelity to the humorous fantasy novel. Miyazaki takes plenty of liberties with the story, leaving out characters and adjusting others. As a result, it feels more like his story than Jones', with the earmarks of his style -- blobby monsters, colorful rural settings, intense anti-war messages, strange machines, and a Jules-Verne atmosphere of Victorian technology. But "Howl's Moving Castle" is very different from the others Miyazaki has done, since he kept the British flavour of the original book.
Moreover, it's a love story. Miyazaki has vaguely touched on romance in prior movies, but here it's full-blown, and surprisingly un-cheesy. In less skilled hands, having Howl say "I finally found something worth protecting. It's you" would seem inane. In Miyazaki's hands, it's not. And even though Sophie looks elderly through most of the movie, Miyazaki never falls into trite observations about inner beauty. He just lets the story show it.
Not that it's all lovey-doviness -- Sophie's housecleaning and Calcifur ("Sophie, help! I'm going out!") provide plenty of amusement. And the animation is as close to flawless as you can get, from the chaotic absurdity Castle to the breathtaking aerial battles that Howl swoops in on. Tiny details are everywhere, from painted ceiling beams to elaborate doorknobs. Calcifur is the one sore point -- he's not done badly, but he looks vaguely artificial.
There are a few flaws in that the story could have used a bit more fleshing out -- at times the relationships between the characters are sketchy. Not much detail, for example, is given about sorceress Suliman (Blythe Danner) and her relationship to Howl, why she's so peeved at him. And it's a bit hard to comprehend why Howl's condition would turn him into a monster bird.
And while there are the usual "howls" that the English dubbing is inferior to the original Japanese vocal work, the American voice actors did exceptional work. Christian Bale and Billy Crystal are the major standouts -- Crystal is funny and dry as usual, while Bale is sultry, sexy, soft-spoken and deep. Except, of course, when Howl runs around the house wailing that his hair is ruined.
"Howl's Moving Castle" moves on a little too fast in places, but it's still a breathtaking, romantic, colorful ride. A wonderful story, told by one of the few filmmakers who could do it justice.