The latest feature from legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, "Howl's Moving Castle" is not as dazzling as the director's last two efforts ("Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke"), but it does present more of Miyazaki's astonishing imagination and visual style, along with a story that works well enough.
The film opens with young Sophie (voice of Emily Mortimer) being saved by young magician Howl (voice of Christian Bale). Although he whisks her out of trouble, the two find themselves being persued by rubbery creatures who have been chasing after Howl, who chooses an unexpected escape route: the two lift off and fly across the city to safety.
Upset that Sophie has crossed paths with Howl (for reasons explained later), she pays a visit to Sophie at her work, and curses her as she's leaving, turning Sophie into an old woman. Dismayed but strong, Sophie sets out from the town in search of an answer to her situation. Thanks to a curious, silent and awfully mobile scarecrow, she finds herself confronted with Howl's moving castle, a giant contraption that rumbles across the countryside.
Seeking a place to rest, she manages to find her way into the castle, and soon meets its other inhabitants: Calcifer, a fire demon that powers the castle (Billy Crystal, whose voice seems disconnected from the rest of the proceedings, yet it's one of the comedian's best performances in a while) and Markl (Josh Hutchinson), a young boy who serves as a helper in the castle. Howl, unaware that Sophie is the young woman he saw a day earlier, allows the old woman to stay aboard as a maid, as the place could use a dusting. Meanwhile, war has broken out between neighboring countries, and the King seeks out Howl, who is reluctant to join the battle.
Miyazaki's film boasts the same sort of remarkable imagination and stunning, painting-like images that his prior films have offered. However, the story (from the novel by Diana Wynne Jones) doesn't quite connect as well, partly due to the fact that Sophie does not have as much depth as some of the lead characters in the director's prior efforts, and that the film seems a bit overstuffed, with some elements of the story remaining a tad puzzling. Still, the picture somehow manages to transition between different tones with ease, as the movie includes moments of snappy comedy and intense drama, including some scenes of war.
The film's animation - largely traditional animation, with some CGI quite seamlessly mixed in - is often breathtaking, with the castle standing out as an inspired, memorable creation that almost becomes a character of its own. A bouncing, silent and curious scarecrow is another exceptional work - a character never says anything, yet remains completely fascinating. There's many other wonderful touches here, including a door in Howl's castle that has a switch allowing it to open to different places.
"Howl's" may scare younger children a bit, but older children (and adults) will likely find this an enjoyable animated tale, full of surprises and incredibly gorgeous and detailed visuals.
VIDEO: "Howl's" is presented by Disney in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen by Disney. The presentation is absolutely first-rate, and certainly preserves every frame of the director's exceptional animation. Sharpness and detail are first-rate, with every last little bit of visual information in the animation clearly visible.
As for flaws, none were noticable: no shimmering, no pixelation, no edge enhancement and no wear on the elements used was seen. Throughout the film, the image quality was clean and clear, certainly making the DVD a very pleasant viewing experience. Colors were superbly presented, looking bold and well-saturated, with no smearing or other faults.
SOUND: "Howl's" is presented here in both its original Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 edition and a dubbed (directed by "Monsters, Inc." director Pete Docter) English edition. The film's sound design is marvelous, as surrounds kick in appropriately to deliver both intense sound effects (during the battle scenes) and light ambience. Overall, this is a fun and immersive audio experience that takes the opportunities presented by the situations in the film and creates an immersive experience.
EXTRAS: The entire second disc is devoted to offering the storyboard version of the film. While animation fans will likely find this a treasure, I didn't get into it very much. The first disc contains the remainder of the supplements, including a brief promotional featurette about the voice talent, trailers and TV spots, an enjoyable interview with US director Pete Docter and finally, a great featurette where Miyazaki comes to Pixar to visit "Toy Story" director John Lasseter, who is overjoyed to greet his surprise guest.
Final Thoughts: While I didn't connect with the story quite as intensely as I did with the director's other features, "Howl's Moving Castle" is still a magical and incredibly imaginative adventure worth watching. The DVD boasts fantastic audio/video quality and a few very nice supplements. Recommended, as are the director's other films, which are being released by Disney on DVD.
The Film B+