No one who has a heart or a soul, or even a glimmer of imagination, could fail to be utterly bewitched by this work of cascading genius from Hayao Miyazaki. The Japanese director behind rare gems Princess Mononoke (1997) as well as the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2003), this picture from Miyazaki is something else entirely: a two-hour waltz through the music of time that is as wise, beautiful, melancholic and true.
The story, based on a novel by children’s author Diana Wynne Jones, is set in a cosmic, almost Edwardian landscape. A young girl called Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), who works in a hat shop, has a spell cast on her by the Wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) that turns her into a nonagenarian crone (Jean Simmons). Mortified, and unable to tell anyone what has happened, she moves as far away as possible. A scarecrow helps her to find sanctuary and employment as a housemaid in a moving castle powered by a fire demon called Calcifer (Billy Crystal) and owned by Howl (Christian Bale), a wizard who is in trouble with an empress-warlock (Blythe Danner) because he refuses to fight in the war that is raging across the kingdom. As this strange band of survivor-bravehearts fend off endless attacks, Sophie begins to fall in love with Howl, even though she could easily be his great-grandmother.
What kind of animated film is Howl’s Moving Castle? It is easier to say what it is not: it isn’t full of showy computer-generated imagery, corporate product-placements, or ironic yakking and wisecracks. Nor does it race along at breakneck speed and at ear-splitting levels. Rather, it is mysterious and sublime, full of space and silences, eschewing traditional storytelling in favour of emotional coherence.
Sophie, like many of Miyazaki’s heroines, is a young girl who goes on a long journey in the course of which she develops all sorts of new wisdom. But there’s something in her plainness and modesty that speaks of premature knowledge. Her shock upon peering into the mirror and discovering that most of her life has passed by, and that she has become slow and withered, is genuinely upsetting to witness.
Howl himself is a peculiar figure. He’s a sorcerer-peacock, a playboy-aesthete with streaky blonde hair and colourful earrings. He’s a reckless but gold-hearted young man, with the ability to turn into a bird. He’s also prone to despair and starts dripping with green goo when he does so. He’s in love with the idea of freedom, assuming multiple aliases to hide from his enemies, and also using freedom as a way of warding off adulthood with all the responsibilities and decisions that that entails.
If Howl is mutable, so is everything else in this flow-motion film. Sophie’s face switches from youthful to elderly in almost every scene, depending on how transported she is by the force of what she is feeling in her heart. Landscapes are liquid, transforming from Tolkienesque battlefields to bucolic meadows. Characters such as the Witch of the Waste, initially portrayed as black-hearted, later prove to be softer.
The castle itself moves from being a wheezing, clanking, chicken-legged contraption to a splendid magic-cave-turned-fighting-machine. This near-animistic capacity for change also suggests the possibility of redemption: nothing good exists that might not descend into barbarism, and nothing bad that might not be alleviated.
The ultimate barbarism, according to Miyazaki, is warfare. “No war is a just war,” says one of his characters. “You reek of flesh and steel,” complains Sophie to Howl on another occasion. The spectre of annihilation hangs over proceedings, and gives the drama a desperate, snatched intensity. Some of the most visually spectacular scenes are those in which huge swathes of the country are blitzed and swell with crimson tides of innocent blood. Don’t be misled by some of the antique Zeppelin-style airships: this is a film whose every frame reveals Miyazaki’s rage at the war in Iraq.
Howl’s Moving Castle was released in both a dubbed and a subtitled version. If at all possible, I would urge you to see the latter. No actor in the world could erode entirely the film’s charm and subtlety, but Christian Bale’s voice, a largely one-note cement-mixer baritone, is dissonant in the extreme, while Billy Crystal as Calcifer recycles the kind of over-the-top whoopsiness so often heard in American animated features, but that is inappropriate here.
In almost every other respect, Miyazaki’s film is close to flawless. True to its director’s vision – his studio museum in Tokyo has the motto, “Let’s lose our way, together” – it has the strange logic and seductive allure of a half-forgotten dream. Never once does it patronise or talk down to its audience. Never once does it try to fob us off with happy-ever-after platitudes. Empathetic and enchanting, imaginatively liberated and dripping with amazing imagery, Miyazaki’s work require a conscious investment of attention; you have to immerse yourself in them, and soon you will find yourself floating, buoyed up by his gentleness, his visual exuberance, and his unshowy intelligence and emotional literacy. It is a lovely film for all ages.