Thursday, September 07, 2006

Movie Log: Howl's Moving Castle

I should stop slandering my sons, because they actually did want to watch a good movie this last weekend. Howl's Moving Castle is the most recent Miyazaki movie, and nearly the last of his films I have to see. (I still haven't caught My Neighbor Totoro -- though I could have, since the boys popped it in right after Howl for a Miyazaki double-feature -- and then after that I think I'll need to try to dig up his pre-Studio Ghibli work.)

Of course, Thing 1 did declare the movie to be "too weird" and ran upstairs several times during the middle, and Thing 2 joined him once, but what can you do? My older son is very affected by emotion in movies, and sometimes runs away if he even suspects a sad part is coming up. (I also had to warn them to hide their faces when it looked like there might be kissing, but that's to be expected from eight- and five-year-old boys.)

I don't think Howl is quite as successful and of a piece as Spirited Away is, but it's close. The plot moves at its own pace and in its own directions; it all feels organic, but it also (amazingly) never falls into any of the expected plots or patterns. I did read the Diana Wynne Jones novel (of the same title) that the movie is based on, but that was several years ago, so I don't remember it well enough to be sure what's different in the movie.

A young woman, Sophie, is working in a hat-maker's shop in the standard unnamed Miyazaki country (vaguely European, though this one seems to be a bit more late-19th century rather than his typical pseudo-1930s), which is sliding into war, for unspecified reasons, with its unnamed neighbor. (As I vaguely recall, this was all clearly specified, and made sense, in the Jones novel, so I guess Miyazaki was going for a feel of timelessness.) Sophie has a run-in with a dashing young wizard, and then falls afoul of a nasty witch through no real fault of her own. (I don't know if this is a Miyazaki thing, a Japanese thing, or just coincidence, but the magical plots work this way in several Miyazaki movies, and it feels very real and concrete, especially compared with the usual run of crudely didactic American animation: bad things happen to good people just because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time, not due to any moral failing that they then fix over the course of the movie and announce their redemption of with a big schmaltzy production number.)

So: Sophie is cursed, turned old. She believes the mysterious and dangerous wizard Howl can cure her, and so she sets off to find him. Of course he turns out to be the wizard she met in the beginning of the movie, and of course they eventually fall in love. Howl is magnificently selfish and vain, and Sophie is strong-willed but unsure of herself -- and yet the plot does not follow the well-worn romance tropes that those character types would lead us to expect. It meanders and sidetracks, always fascinating but never predictable.

In common with Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, there's no real villain here -- several characters seem to be stepping into that role (starting with the nasty witch), but then step down to do other things, or wander off from the main plotline.

Miyazaki's movies are simply amazing, and his last few are clearly his best. It's heartening to discover someone like him, especially to a viewer like me, who desperately wants to see more good fantasy and more good animation in the movies. He's getting old, but, with luck, he could have another two or three good movies in him. I certainly hope so

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