Movie Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

The only Japanese animation that I’ve seen is Star Blazers, back when I was a kid. I really enjoyed it, but I think the advent of Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Digimon turned me off of the whole genre.

Earlier this year, however, I saw the trailer for Howl’s Moving Castle, and I had to re-watch it two or three times just to take it all in. Every second of it seemed like a work of art. I had also heard some positive things about the movie that made me want to see it.

Well, after searching for it at my local video store and seeing that their one copy was always rented, I grew desperate and went ahead and bought it and watched it with my 8-year-old daughter.

In short, I loved it. I loved just about every moment of it! Every frame of this movie could be framed as a work of art. I’ve never seen a traditionally animated movie with backgrounds that had so much depth and realism as this one.

And the story was great too! It’s a story that could be compared to the fantasy of The Wizard of Oz, with it’s unique characters and surreal vistas. There are a few moments where it’s very clear that many people will interpret what they are seeing very differently.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantasy about a young girl name Sophie who has an encounter with a mysterious wizard named Howl. Sophie is soon transformed into a 90-year-old woman by the jealous Witch of the Waste. Knowing that she can’t stay in her home in her transformed state, Sophie sets out on a journey to find some way to break the spell and return herself to normal. What follows is a wonderful adventure.

There were only two things that distracted me initially in this movie. The first was that I didn’t think there was enough of a relationship built between Sophie and Howl at the beginning of the movie. I wished I could have seen more of Sophie before she was transformed, and maybe have seen that there was more of an emotional connection between the two of them.

The second was a technical animation issue. In traditional animation (Disney feature stuff) there is usually one drawing for every two frames of film, which is called animating “on twos.” In CGI animation, it’s usually one new image for every frame of film, or “on ones” which gives the animation a much more fluid look. I was expecting at least “twos” in this feature film, but it was clear at the beginning to me, that this movie must have been animated on “threes” or “fours” which made the movements a little distractingly choppy. I quickly got used to it though and didn’t mind it as much.

Pixar directors Pete Docter and John Lasseter and Disney were in charge of creating the English language translation and dub for this release and the voice cast features such notable actors as Lauren Bacall (Key Largo), Christian Bale (Batman Begins), Jean Simmons (Spartacus—no Bryan, not the one from KISS), and Blythe Danner (Meet the Parents). Never once during this movie did I experience the “Godzilla effect” where their mouths are saying something their voices weren’t.

I don’t believe I’ve ever left an animated movie with such a feeling of wonder as I did with this one. I really want to watch it again to relive the majesty of it and to see if there’s anything that I can understand in a new way from it all.

I would highly recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys animated films as a viable source of entertainment and story telling. This is not a comedy—though it does have its funny parts. It is a fantasy with a more cinematic than cartoony feel to it.

By the way, as one of the biggest signs that my daughter liked it, she immediately wanted to play it with me pretending that I was Howl and she was Sophie. She was even doing a British accent. She also kept asking me if she could watch it again, and again…

Now my homework assignment is to check out other Studio Ghibli productions such as Spirited Away, Nausicaa, and Princess Mononoke. Any suggestions?

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