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movie review ***

The Animation Master Strikes Again, Though Only in Form, Not in Plot

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: Because of an editing error, the July 6 version of the headline for this article switched two words in the headline. It should have read “The Animation Master Strikes Again, Though Only in Form, Not in Plot,” not “Only in Plot, Not in Form.”

By W. Victoria Lee

Howl’s Moving Castle

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones

Voices in dubbed (English) version starring Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Billy Crystal, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, and Blythe Danner

Rated PG

Imagine you’re a plain-looking teenage girl who expects to spend the rest of your boring life as a hat-maker. One day, on your way to visiting your more comely sibling, you encounter two overzealous soldiers in a dark alley. Suddenly, a handsome wizard, himself pursued by amoebic dark goos wearing purple suits, comes to your rescue. On command, you two leap into mid-air and stroll above the town, and …

And you have to watch Howl’s Moving Castle to see what happens.

But unless you watch animation solely for the visual appeal, you might be in for a disappointment. Howl’s, the latest work by Japanese animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, marks a departure from most of his previous works, which most recently included the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away (2001). And the changes are not for the better.

Based loosely on a Diana Wynne Jones book of the same name, Howl’s is a hodgepodge of fairy tales with an ill-placed anti-war message. On top of that, it’s an adaptation, not an entirely original work by Miyazaki-san.

Miyazaki’s previous works all feature their own unique creatures and showcase different sides of his imaginative mind. Howl’s Moving Castle, however, stars some suspiciously familiar Miyazakian characters. The amoebic dark goos, for example, recall the evil twins of No-Face from Spirited Away, and dark-haired wizard Howl bears close resemblance to Haku, also from Spirited Away. Howl’s moving castle, although just a moving pile of junk on top of a dilapidated cottage, could be associated with a similar architectural unit in Castle in the Sky (1986). Even the settings of the story seem to be a deja vu of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). The single most original feature in the film is a dial-controlled magical door that takes the occupants of the castle to different locations.

Yet perhaps the greatest disappointment of all is the assimilation of western culture, particularly the Disney-like characteristics, in this work. The fire demon Calcifer, for example, seems to be the reincarnation of Mushu, the dragon sidekick of Mulan; he assumes the same comic relief role with the same bad-attitude laden personality, which is far too exaggerated for a Miyazaki film. There are even two true-love-kiss-breaks-evil-curse scenarios. Since this film is based on an English children’s book, some appearances of the cliche scenes that appear frequently in western animated features are understandable. But for a Miyazaki work, which is always a conglomeration of fantastical new ideas featuring multi-faceted characters with complex emotions, the western fairy tale components undermine the captivating power it could have had otherwise.

Most of Miyazaki’s films are targeted at a specific age group. Spirited Away is for 10- or 11-year-olds, while My Neighbor Totoro (1988) targets the younger audience of age five or six. Castle in the Sky (1986) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) are targeted at early teens. Although made for the more youthful population, the stories of most of Miyazaki’s works can be enjoyed by anyone. But Howl’s will join Princess Mononoke (1997) as an animated film with themes more suitable for a slightly older population. Romance is clearly depicted in the film, another deviation from most of Miyazaki’s works. The boy-loves-girl (or girl-loves-boy) element unfortunately does not fit well with the premise of the story, and neither does the anti-war message. Unlike Princess Mononoke, which has a clear love-your-earth theme with a strong plot to substantiate it, Howl’s proves to be too ambitious to cover subject matters of love, antiwar, and coming-of-age simultaneously and therefore fails to deliver them successfully.

Story premise and plot aside, the film is still a great pleasure to watch. Studio Ghibli is known for its hand-drawn animations, and Miyazaki purposely limits the number of digitally-manipulated frames. As a result, Howl’s, as well as other Ghibli productions, is a true testimonial to the craft of animation.

Two significant merits that set Miyazaki films apart from the more familiar western animated features are the range of colors and level of details. Breaking the tradition of using only the most pronounceable shades that will look good in plastic when the film characters are made into toys, Miyazakian works explore all colors imaginable. The aim is not to produce photo-realistic pictures, but to create refreshing images that both reward intelligent viewers’ visual hunger and rejuvenate the audience’s tired eyes that have been dulled by commercialized bright colors.

The attention to details also enlivens each frame in the animated sequence. Instead of reducing the backgrounds to a blur, the films capture each leaf, each insect, each button with the same vigor and care as with the main characters. As a result, the films feature scenes that not only add to the works’ overall sophistication, but also enable each frame to become a stand-alone artwork.

It was rumored that Howl’s would be Miyazaki’s last film. But the animation master has come in and out of retirement before, so a new Miyazaki work in the future is not entirely impossible. With all the prior works leaving viewers hungry for more, hopefully Studio Ghibli will recognize the blunder of adapting a western novel and return to enchanting viewers worldwide with its imaginative and original works.

‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ is playing at Kendall Square Cinema, in both dubbed (English) and subtitled (Japanese) versions.