The Film (4/5)
Sophie is a young hat maker in a bustling city in which she lives quite a dull and boring life. Her very existence tends to exemplify an old person trapped in a young person's body quite well. One day while out in the city she is accosted by two guards, and finds herself defended by the great wizard Howl. Later that same evening the Witch of the Waste pays her a visit in the hat shop where she works, believing her to be an acquaintance of Howl. During this interaction she is cursed by the witch, and turned into a literal old woman. She then seeks out Howl, and finds him in his patchwork moving castle. She joins up with Howl, the fire demon Calcifer who powers the castle, Howl's apprentice Markl in an attempt to break her curse. In the process the group will come into contact with other strangers, have many adventures, and find themselves involved in a senseless war.
Howl's Moving Castle is based on the 1986 fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones. I personally have not read the book, but from what research I have done it appears that the book was used by Miyazaki as the framework with which to tell his version of the story. Howl's Moving Castle could very well be the most disjointed, narratively speaking, of Miyazaki's many feature films. That being said though the narrative does not exactly flow, the artistry and direction of the film combined with the overall atmosphere, and interesting set-pieces have crafted something truly unique that holds up quite well to multiple re-watches.
Howl's Moving Castle came out around the time the second Iraq War was in it's early stages (2004), and it's influence can certainly be felt especially in the war-torn later half of the film. I have always loved seeing how current social and political events influence art, and Miyazaki's anti-war message bleeds through powerfully in the second half of Howl's. I saw the film on it's original theatrical release, and I remember a lot of discussions stating that these elements felt forced having seen Howl's Moving Castle a good many times in the intervening years, and now with the 2 wars of the last decade slowly drawing down, I can say with certainty that these elements do not feel forced, and fit the overall theme of the film quite well.
The film as stated earlier is simply breathtakingly gorgeous. Miyazaki's work has always run the gamut from simple and elegantly effective animation to elaborate and fantastic animation and Howl's certainly falls into the latter category with the animation being varied and beautiful throughout the presentation. Both dubs of the film English and Japanese appear to fit the film quite well.
The most interesting thing about Howl's Moving Castle to me personally is watching it from a career perspective. It's almost like Cassavete's Love Streams for Miyazaki in the sense that it tends to act as a cinematic coda to his work. There are elements in this film that harken back to his earliest movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky to later films like Spirited Away, Porco, Rosso, and Princess Mononoke. I have heard that he did plan on retiring after this film, and if that was to be the case this would have been an excellent final statement from the filmmaker. Howl's Moving Castle is an enchanting and deep fantasy film that works well for an all ages crowd. It's art design, and direction are nothing short of stunning, and the film certainly remains compelling 9 years after it's release.
I have only seen 4 Ghibli Blu-ray's thus far (Arriety, Ponyo, Totoro, and Howl's), and Howl's certainly takes the top prize for the most fantastic Blu-ray presentation thus far. Disney has released Howl's Moving Castle a 1:85:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer that is positively mind-blowing. The last time I saw Howl's Moving Castle look this good was during it's theatrical run. The colors really pop on this transfer, black are solid and deep, and fine detail is vastly increased over the DVD.
There are two audio options available a DTS-HD Master Audio track one in English and one in Japanese. Both tracks sound really fantastic with dialogue, of course, coming through loud and clear, The music and sound effects work truly comes through bombastically. This is really a great disc all around.
I have never been very impressed with the Ghibli DVD/Blu-ray extras, and it appears that tradition continues here. The disc includes the entire original Japanese story boards for the film. We then get a 9 minute Behind the Microphone featurette that talks to the American vocal cast. This is followed up with an interview with Pixar's Pete Docter who discusses his involvement with the English dub. We get a 16 minute piece called Miyazaki visits Pixar, where Miyazaki visits Pixar, and the disc is rounded off by trailers and TV spots.
Howl's Moving Castle is a gorgeous and compelling fantasy epic from one of the world's greatest living animators Hayao Miyazaki. The A/V on the Blu-ray was simply gorgeous, but the extras are only decent. For the Movie and A/V I would say HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, for the overall package Recommended.