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May 12, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 12, 2006 |

In an art form that is increasingly being taken over by computer effects and/or industrial homogenization, Hayao Miyazaki might be one off the last great auteurs of traditional cel animation. His work is consistently fantastical and admired the world over; proving that a one-of-a-kind imagination and knack for characters can overcome the most conventional studio standards.

Miyazaki was barely noticed in the West before 1998’s North American release of the fantasy tour de force Princess Mononoke. The film became a critical bombshell, prompting one critic to laud it as “the Star Wars of animated features.” When he followed again in 2001 with the similarly acclaimed Spirited Away, people finally started to pay attention. Miyazaki’s back catalogue was re-released in heightened DVD formats and pulled off the dreaded Anime shelves in rental stores and put into main circulation. It’s especially ironic that Miyazaki was (and remains in some cases) pigeonholed with the rest of Japanese animation — a genre anathematized by many Americans as loud, strange, flashy, and frequently obnoxious fare — when his work, while certainly bizarre, is so very different.

Howl’s Moving Castle, another ethereal adventure, continues Miyazaki’s streak of excellence. Very loosely adapted from teen fantasy author Diane Wynne Jones’ novel, the film pivots on evocative irrationality throughout; the setting is an anachronistic combination of fin-de-si├Ęcle and WWII Europe with raiding airships and battles between demons and wizards. The castle of title is a clunking, mechanical shack walking around on chicken legs; powered by a petulant spirit (Billy Crystal) and home to an enigmatic young wizard named Howl (Christian Bale). The central heroine of the story, Sophie (Emily Mortimer), seeks out the castle for help when a vindictive witch puts a geriatric curse on her. She becomes a housekeeper of sorts, eventually falling in love with the juvenile Howl, but her predicament largely falls by the wayside as a war rages and a sorceress’ minions hunt for the castle.

As in the past, Miyazaki’s narrative style is variable to the point of surrealism. Physics and metaphysics are haphazardly tossed around with little or no consistence; the relationships between characters undergo total overhauls in the blink of an eye; and climactic action is scattered throughout instead of coming at the end. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Miyazaki’s narratives have always relied on a resonant emotional core rather than a plotline. Linear logic is much less reliable (and hence, less crucial) than love and empathy. In this case, the formation of an extemporized family unit under the guidance of Sophie’s keen practicality becomes the central heart of Howl’s, as opposed to any epochal event or setting. It’s a testimony to Miyazaki’s skill that he can utilize such fantastical means to create such charming and watchable films.

It’s unfortunate that such a proven and consistent vision as Miyazaki’s can’t escape the taint of studio interference, but in this case, the insistence by the Disney/Miramax distributors of an English dubbing done by Hollywood personalities doesn’t feel organic to the film. Whereas in Mononoke, an epic in which strong, dynamic voices were well-placed, the voicework of Christian Bale and Billy Crystal just doesn’t gel and feels unnecessarily pompous. If the studio was so hellbent on an English-language version, seasoned voice actors would have served just as well.

But that’s a nitpick if ever there was one, considering the sumptuous visual detail and rich metaphorical power of this adventurous movie. We can only pray that Miyazaki continues to make films, because in the post-Disney world of animation and the still unproven frontier of computer imagery, it’s his vision that seems the purest.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

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