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Published: Friday, 7/1/2005

Movie review: Howl's Moving Castle ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE SATFF WRITER
The mysterious Howl literally sweeps Sophie off her feet. The mysterious Howl literally sweeps Sophie off her feet.
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You don't know Miyazaki.

I do. I know Miyazaki.

You're glib. You don't know the history of Miyazaki, and I do. You don't even know who Miyazaki is. If you start talking about Miyazaki, you have to evaluate and read the research papers - OK?

That's what I've done.

Hayao Miyazaki, that is.

Tom Cruise might not like it, but the guy is an antidepressant.

And he works.

Howl's Moving Castle, which opens in Toledo today, is the new film from the Japanese anime legend, the most revered animator in the world today, but it comes on the heels of a bona fide masterpiece: Spirited Away, which won the 2003 best animated feature Academy Award.

Howl's Moving Castle is a visually wondrous, invigorating work of breathless invention and grandiosity, full of hushed pastoral glens, zeppelin blitzkriegs, whimsical machines, and blobs that wear straw hats.

And it's not Miyazaki's finest.

Then again, Salvador Dali had off days, and a surrealist having a bad day, particularly one as humanistic and generous as Miyazaki, is always more intriguing than what you find in your multiplex on a good day. Not even the Pixar wizards, who helped spruce up these very Asian films into a form more palatable for Western audiences, would walk down streets Miyazaki inhabits. And yet it's the first movie where the filmmaker's message-sending allegories, kitchen-sink inspirations, curlicues, and dream logic get the better of him. That said, the movie is a must-see.

Because even as it falls apart and turns chilly and incomprehensible, the delicacy and richness and fundamental oddness that also characterizes Miyazaki is often worth the trouble. As for the story - oh, how to explain?

Well, all right: This rock star-looking guy in a military cape who also looks a lot like a blond Michael Jackson (his nose is more of a pimple) is rumored to eat the hearts of young women.

One young woman, our heroine Sophie, an 18-year-old hat maker with no hopes for a romantic relationship, doesn't buy it. One day while traipsing around her vaguely European, vaguely 19th-century village that appears to be a Tudoresque reproduction of Hickory Farms, Sophie runs afoul of a slithering gang of black blobs. At the last second, she's swept off her feet.

Howl is that rumored bad guy, though he is actually a deeply neurotic good guy. He also walks on air, and oh, he lives in a moving castle, hence the title. Like Miyazaki's film itself, this contraption is a remarkable blend of the organic and mechanical. It's massive, with steel talons supporting an assemblage of balconies and bows and portholes and smokestacks and smaller homes and shingles painted pink, blue, and green. It ambles over mountaintops and across meadows, and it's given life by a fire demon known as Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal).

There's more - much more:

Sophie's rescue by Howl stokes the jealousy of the mountainous, vain Witch of the Waste (smoky Lauren Bacall),

who puts a curse on Sophie that turns her into a 90-year-old crone. Sophie, who can't tell anyone about her new body(that's a part of the curse), goes to work in Howl's moving castle. There's also a war that flattens all the above lovely details and proves impossible to care about. (There's next to no anxiety over it, and easily a third of the film feels undramatized.)

Oh, and Howl is a green bird.

Part of the time.

I should mention that a number of committed anime fans believe Miyazaki's films - if not all anime - are best seen only with the original Japanese dialogue and translated subtitles. Howl's Moving Castle, in Toledo anyway, is dubbed; it's the version that was screened for press, but a Japanese-language print is circulating to a few larger cities.

No, Detroit isn't one of them.

But really, so what?

"So what" for two reasons:

No. 1: As I mentioned, Pixar is at the helm of the dubbing, and as with Spirited Away and the excellent DVD reissues of his older films such as Kiki's Delivery Service, the voice casting is spot-on and the script slightly tweaked so that lips match words. Christian "Batman" Bale is Howl. Emily Mortimer is Sophie; as an old woman, she's voiced by a Bacall contemporary, Jean Simmons.

And No. 2: Who goes to an Miyazaki film for the dialogue? You go for the characters, who invariably question their own nature; Sophie, to her surprise, finds she likes being 90. And you go for the visuals: The plot meanders, Howl is a bit of a moody cad, but Miyazaki's imagination and luminous visions never quit. I'd pass a dozen Madagascars to fall back in one of his meadows.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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