Howl's Moving Castle

Starring (voice): Chieko Baisho, Takuya Kimura, Christian Bale and Emily Mortimer
Optimum Releasing
RRP: 19.99
Certificate: PG
Available 13 March 2006

Sophie is an unassuming young hat maker. Not very confident with her own looks she is content to remain in the obscurity of her mother's shop, that is, until the day she inadvertently and unknowingly runs into Howl, a handsome wizard of ill repute who rescues her from the evil denizens of the Witch of the Wastes. Not to be denied her prize the witch visits Sophie and casts a spell that turns her into an old woman. Unable to live with her mother any more she makes her way to the wasteland, home of wizards and witches. A chance meeting with a scarecrow leads her to Howl's Moving Castle where she takes up a position as cleaning lady, but things are not what they seem at the castle, its odd collection of inhabitants are more than they seem. Has Sophie finally found a home? Can she discover Howl's secret and will she ever be able to break the curse?...

Howl's Moving Castle is a surreal visual treat and without a doubt it's up their with my personal favourite Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. My first introduction to Miyazaki's animation was when I was twenty-four and I saw Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. That film's use of movement and attention to detail just blew me away. Since then he has produced one great film after another. This latest film still contains the usual visual signature of his films - great rolling vistas, beautiful backgrounds and clouds, the man has a thing for clouds, what can I say. Thematically, it also puts forward the ideas that run through most of his films; firstly that love can overcome anything and that war is a foolish and pointless endeavour.

Howl is a little different to most anime films in that it's not based on a manga; rather it is based on the children's novel, of the same name, by English author Diana Wynne Jones. Not having read the original novel I can't, from personal knowledge, say how the film differs from the original novel, but that's where having kids comes in handy. Apparently, the film follows the book fairly faithfully except in the character of Sophie who doesn't develop her own magical powers in the film. On the extras disc is an interview with Jones in which she not only gives the film her whole hearted support but also discusses some of the differences between the two.

Like the recent Steamboy film from Otomo, this is another anime film that is not set in Japan; rather the film has set the action in some fictional pan European conglomerate. The mountains look like Switzerland but the architecture looks more like Holland, in a romanticised nineteenth century.

Disney obviously looks at Howl as a premier release, not only does it come on two discs with lots of delicious extras, but they have rolled out the big acting guns to do the English dub. Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons share the role of Sophie. Mortimer was most recently seen playing Nichole in the recent remake of The Pink Panther, whilst Simmons is an icon whose career has been going strong since nineteen forty-four. Howl's voice is provided by Christian Bale, Mr Batman Begins himself. Whilst, he does a very good job portraying Howl's gentle spirit there is not enough variety in his performance especially in the dramatic scenes, a problem that was also evident in Batman Begins, which is strange as he can produce a full ranges of emotions as he showed in American Psycho.

Another Hollywood icon, Lauren Bacall, voices the witch of the wastes and brings out all the underlying humour in her character, after all this is a Miyazaki film, so none of the characters are truly evil, even the war which acts as a backdrop to the main narrative is viewed as a terrible mistake rather than an act of evil. Adding a nice comedic touch is Billy Crystal who plays the part of Calcifer, the fire demon who is in thraldom to Howl.

Disc one presents a beautiful print of the film. Audio is either 5.1 English or subtitled Japanese. At this point, I would encourage anyone buying the film to listen to both audio tracks whilst the names of the Japanese vocal actors may not be so recognisable they do just as good a job as their American counterparts. Also included on disc one is the alternative angle storyboards which allow you to switch between the finished film and the original storyboards or watch the whole film through as storyboards.

Disc two is where all the extra goodies are hiding. As I said before there is an interview with the original author, as well as one with Peter Docter who directed the English dub version. Docter had previously worked on Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc. There is a lengthy fascinating documentary about the use that was made of CGI technology in bringing the walking castle to life, and lastly is a documentary titled Hello, Mr Lasseter, which looks at the film from another perspective - that of Peter Lasseter's, executive producer of Howl's. He also worked in the same capacity on Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.

Overall this is another great film for all the family and for fans of fairy tales. Unfortunately, our marking system only goes up to ten, as this DVD release of the film would deserve a Spinal Tap eleven it's that entertainingly loud.

Charles Packer

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£11.99 (Amazon.co.uk)
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