Friday, June 10, 2005

A diligent teenage girl named Sophie finds her life thrown into turmoil when she is swept off her feet by a handsome-but-mysterious wizard named Howl.

A magical treat
for the senses

A story of love and war plays out
in an enchanted world created by
anime director Hayao Miyazaki

If events had gone as planned for director Hayao Miyazaki, he would have gone out on top after winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2003 for "Spirited Away." After all, he told the Japanese media shortly after completing that film in 2001 that it would be the last feature-length film he would direct. Never mind that he said the same thing after finishing "Princess Mononoke" in 1997. "Spirited Away" was his last film. Seriously. He meant it.

"Howl's Moving Castle"

Rated PG
Opens today at Consolidated Ward
3 stars

For a few months, anyway.

But then the original director on Ghibli's next project, "Howl's Moving Castle," dropped out, and Miyazaki assumed the director's chair once more.

Now America gets to see the results of Miyazaki's return as the English-dubbed version of "Howl" hits the Ward multiplex today. Honolulu, in fact, is one of the few cities fortunate to get the movie a week early. The head start offers local audiences a chance to see what the rest of the country will discover next week: an animated movie filled with wit, whimsy and wonder that's a perfect alternative to the other whiz-bang blockbusters being released now.

Ghibli movies have always had a fairy-tale quality to them, and "Howl" is no exception. The story, based loosely on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, is set in a European town with the undercurrents of war running through it. Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer in her young form), the heroine of the film, is the eldest of three girls who works at her family's hat shop.

While walking through town one day, she's accosted by a pair of soldiers before being saved, and literally swept off her feet, by Howl ("Batman Returns" ' Christian Bale), a dashing young wizard. Howl has somewhat of a bad reputation among the people in town, who are scared of him and his power. Sophie, by contrast, seems rather impressed by the wizard's willingness to help her out of a bind.

But this fondness raises the hackles of the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who transforms young Sophie into very old, 90-year-old Sophie (Jean Simmons). After the initial shock wears off, Sophie sets out to find a witch or a wizard who can undo the curse, eventually being guided by a bouncing scarecrow to Howl's moving castle.

A spell is cast on teenage Sophie, turning her into a 90-year-old woman.

AND WHAT a castle it is. It's powered by the cute yet snarky fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal, in full-on wisecracking form) and tended to by Howl's apprentice, Markl (Josh Hutchinson). The castle itself, with its various pipes spewing steam, random metallic pieces and facades of houses welded here and there, and lurching movement, is a marvel to behold on screen. It could be argued that the computer-enhanced castle is Miyazaki's subtle jab at another recent anime film, "Steamboy."

Yet for all its technological marvels, "Howl" is a story about love and war at its core. Howl continually fights to protect those whom he loves and cares about from the horrors of war and against the orders of a king who wants to draft him into battle. And Sophie, who sees Howl fighting and suffering for it, in turn grows ever fonder of him and wants to protect him.

Many of the strengths of Miyazaki's films are accounted for in "Howl." Joe Hisaishi, known for his subtle scores for Miyazaki films like "Spirited Away," and "Princess Mononoke," contributes another solid effort for this film. Sweeping painted landscapes demonstrate that while 3D computer animation is gaining momentum in more productions, there will always be a niche for traditional 2D work.

There's also a cute character that made a preview audience on Wednesday night laugh every time he appeared. The surprise won't be spoiled here, but suffice it to say this: Watch for the dog. And keep watching it.

Granted, the film isn't without its flaws. The way in which the war subplot plays out, as well as the way Sophie seems to switch back and forth between her old and young forms toward the latter half of the film, can be confusing to follow at times and may take several viewings of the film to understand fully.

Overall, though, the film is a good one for a night out with the family. It may not be wise to take younger children, as there are several scenes that might be too frightening for them. But other than that caveat, it's well worth seeing.

E-mail to Features Desk


© Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- http://archives.starbulletin.com