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HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE Blu-ray Review

When Howl’s Moving Castle was released in the U.S. back in 2005, I thought it was beautifully animated in typical Studio Ghibli fashion but also one of Hayao Miyazaki‘s lesser efforts. Now, having watched it for the first time in eight years on the new Disney Blu-ray…I feel pretty much the same way. Filled with a wonder and imagination uncommon to most Western animation, Howl’s is never dull, but it lacks the unifying sense of purpose of Miyazaki classics like Spirited Away or Castle in the Sky.

Young hatter Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer in the English dub) is rescued from evil inky blobs by Howl (Christian Bale), a renowned wizard who vanishes just as quickly as he appears. Not long after, the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who is not exactly a fan of Howl’s, curses Sophie to appear as a little old lady (her voice switches over to Jean Simmons). Desperate for a cure, Sophie heads to the Wastes, where she happens upon Howl’s incredible moving castle. Hiding her true identity from Howl, she becomes the castle’s cleaning lady. Adventure ensues.

I’m not sure any of this makes sense. Which is fine; you see enough Miyazaki movies, you become conditioned to roll with the fantastical weirdness of it all. If you’re waiting for the story’s various elements to come together, though, you might be disappointed. On top of all the wackiness I’ve already mentioned, there’s also a war raging. Howl is persuaded to fight for both sides but steadfastly refuses. Howl’s Moving Castle went into production at the start of the Iraq War, and while Miyazaki’s anti-war message is commendable, it sort of gets lost amidst the talking fireplaces and mystical doorways and transmogrification.

The transfer is just as gorgeous as you’d expect, though. Miyazaki is the kind of director whose work demands to be seen in the highest quality possible, and the disc doesn’t disappoint. You can lose yourself in the textured, painterly images; at times, I just wanted to pause the movie and focus on the beauty of each shot. It’s also easier to appreciate how much the robust moving castle pops out at the audience, and how the simple, cartoony design of flickering flame Calcifer (Billy Crystal) stands in contrast to the otherwise hyper-detailed drawings.

In addition to the entertaining “Behind the Microphone” featurette carried over from the DVD–worth it if only to see screen legends Bacall and Simmons at work, and for Bale’s tendency to slip into Bat-voice–there are several extras new to the States. There’s an interview with Pixar director Pete Docter, who presided over the English translation, in which it’s fair to say the filmmaker gushes about the movie; in another meeting of the mutual admiration society, Miyazaki makes a trip out to Pixar’s California studio and gives John Lasseter a very special gift; and all of the original storyboards, assembled as a feature and set to the original Japanese soundtrack. This last one should be of particular interest to admirers of the film.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a sight to behold in hi-def, but isn’t essential for anyone other than die-hard fans of Miyazaki-san. That said, the least of Studio Ghibli is still miles better than many animation studios’ best. It’s almost impossible not to find something to be charmed by.

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Arlo J. Wiley

Arlo J. Wiley