This Castle you'll want to keep
, 08 May 2013
In the first few seconds we see a thick white fog accompanied by a clumping sound. Then out of the mist we see what is making the noise - it's a castle mounted on what appears to be giant bird's legs and what's immediately extraordinary is it somehow manages to look both grotesque (as if put together by a very untidy youth) and curiously beautiful at the same time. We then see the story's heroine Sophie, a girl of about 18-21 (her exact age is never revealed) who has low self-esteem issues. She is clearly very pretty but believes she is plain. She conscientously runs her late father's hat shop; her popular younger sister Lettie works in a confectionery shop.
Although this is a Japanese film, all the characters are drawn as westerners, with big round eyes, and the architecture is also western with signs in English and German. This is a fantasy land of wizards, witches, spells & magic yet it appears to be set around the time of World War I (but don't let that put you off). A fleet of dirty war tanks drives through the town, steam trains produce clouds of thick black smoke, and soldiers march in step to be greeted by cheering crowds. Sophie first meets Howl when he rescues her from being accosted by soldiers and he sweeps her off her feet - literally. There's a great scene when they are walking on air high above the streets below.
Later Sophie is turned into a 90 year old woman by the jealous Witch of the Waste and goes on a trek to the wasteland where she helps a bewitched scarecrow who leads her to Howl's castle. Inside she meets Calcifer the fire demon who powers the entire castle and Michael, a young lad of about 10, who is a wannabe wizard. Many questions are left unanswered (almost certainly for reasons of length - it runs for almost 2 hours) & it may be they are answered in the novel the film is based on; but as regards the film it doesn't actually matter because for its entire length there is always so much going on, and so much to take in, that the viewer doesn't have time to ponder these details while watching. The story is so engrossing that when, towards the end, there is a catastrophe, it feels like the end of a long adventure, the end of an era, and consequently it's quite sad.
Both times I saw it, in 2005 & 2006, the cinemas showed the English dubbed version and the first time I was lucky enough to catch it in an auditorium that was capable of presenting it in its proper sound system, Dolby Digital Surround EX, which was the best sound available anywhere. Normally I hate dubbed films and prefer the original language with subtitles. However this film is an exception to the rule and the dubbed version is perfect. The voices match the movement of the characters' mouths at all times and you would never guess it was dubbed. And this brings me to the voice cast, who are all uniformly excellent. Christian Bale manages to sound youthful enough to portray Howl; Emily Mortimer as young Sophie, Jean Simmons as old Sophie & Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste are spot on, and best of all is Billy Crystal who is superb as Calcifer. The music is also very good, with a nice catchy theme tune which recurs throughout, and there are a couple of brief dramatic pieces of music, one during a dream sequence and one when Sophie learns about Howl's past, which are extremely effective.
This movie shows you don't need animation in CGI or 3D, just a fantastically imaginative story. After seeing this you'll never look at a Disney or Pixar film the same way again. This is so thoroughly captivating that it makes me want to read the source novel, even though it's a children's book. It's not only without question the best animation I've ever seen (even better than Spirited Away), it's one of THE best films I've ever seen. Period.
Format: Cinema - 35mm film; Dolby Digital Surround EX sound
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