My initial impression was that the master has done it again. At the time, it seemed that Miyazaki just couldn’t go wrong, and that Howl was another brilliant and touching movie, a great blend of both the epic and the personal touches that he so brilliantly explores.
However, I must say, it isn’t nearly as good as some of his previous masterpieces – Spirited Away, Mononoke-Hime, Totoro, Porco Rosso…I would put it on a par with, say, Kiki.
Because while it has some brilliant and delightful sections, there are some glaring faults, particularly in the final third. It’s better than Wynne Jones’ book, a lot better, but in some ways it could have learned from her.
Visually, it is gorgeous. The castle lumbers along on four chicken-legs, pumping out steam, every segment moving – it’s a feast for the eyes. But more than that, it’s the little things, the details in the animation that are really special. Early in the movie, Howl returns from his flight exhausted, and just staggers into the castle, flops into a chair and puts his feet up on Calcifer’s hearth. It’s such a perfect piece of movement that it made me shiver.
The character designs are very different from the pictures Wynne Jones created. Howl is beautiful – really beautiful. ‘So plain stunning and sexy’, as Wynne Jones herself put it after an advanced screening, adding that she understands the dippy girls that used to write to her saying they wanted to marry him. Sophie took a while to grow on me, being rather more pragmatic and yet emotionally driven than the Sophie in the book, but in the end, I had really warmed to her, and she was really excellently cast and animated.
Other characters underwent major metamorphoses (appropriately enough), some for better, some for worse. Making Michael a little kid was excellent, making the castle seem more like a family home than student digs. I wasn’t convinced by Calcifer, one of two instantly-recognisable recurring Miyazaki cast members – here, it was the frog/Kaonashi from Spirited Away. I was expecting comic relief, rather than the brooding, sarcastic demon whose great powers are ebbing just below the surface (occasionally made the butt of various jokes) from the book, but to be honest, he was just somewhat annoying here.
I wasn’t at all sure about the bizarre look for the witch of the waste, and winced to hear that familiar voice – Moro from Mononoke-hime, and a Japanese national treasure: one of their oldest and most fabulous drag queens, Miwa Akihiro. Miyazaki totally altered the witch, from powerful, beautiful foe to powerful misshapen foe, who has only magic to keep her looking young, when her flesh is ultimately sagging. The spell is removed somehow by Suliman (who is Howl’s teacher, here, not the missing wizard), and the ancient, grotesque true image of the woman is revealed. Here she comes into her own, being taken in by the heroes, and referred to as obaa-chan ('granny'), and her voice starts to fit. I wish I understood the section a little better, but the scene on the stairs was absolutely hilarious. Her turning out to be not so bad (despite coveting Howl’s heart, for some reason) is another heavy-handed lesson in this movie’s theme: don’t judge by appearance.
The plot wildly deviated from the novel’s, thankfully removing the dreadful Wales story and the cop-out of Sophie’s hidden gift, but replacing it with a war and technology vs. magic storyline that I didn’t feel was resolved, or even fully explored, by the end – though I only understood about 30-40% of the dialogue, so perhaps it will be revelatory when I see it translated. I think I understood enough, though. The scenes leading towards the anticlimactic ending were rather trite – I certainly could have done without the mysterious door of flashbacks.
Wynne Jones could learn something from Miyazaki about relationships, and about heart, and how to seriously tell a story (even if Miyazaki slips up a little here); Miyazaki perhaps would have done a little better if he had taken from Wynne Jones’ book a need to explain things – in their own terms, at least – and not rely on empty magical contrivances. He also could have given more sense of place to the castle, which never seemed as familiar, in its quirky way, as it did in the book. Together, they have created something majestic and wonderful, but not quite as beautiful as other worlds Miyazaki has created.
(originally written 12.04.05, before there was any English version available. Upon watching the English dub, I added, 'I think I’ve been unkind to it, for while it IS messy in the second half and has a cheesy ending, it’s much cuter and more inventive than I remember, and that scene scaling the stairs is just brilliantly bizarre. Suliman’s pages are so cute and the dub voices are more impressive than I thought, and by the end the Sophies and Howl sound great. Markl’s voice is adorable, too.')