Up until now, Porco Rosso has always been my least favorite Miyazaki film. But I think that Howl’s Moving Castle now holds that dubious honor. I found myself slowly falling under the film’s spell during the first 15 minutes or so. The opening scenes had so much of what I love about Miyazaki’s films: the strange-yet-familiar worlds, the subtle instances of magic, the amazing amount of background detail, the gorgeous pastoral settings, etc.
However, after that, the movie just flatlined for me. I was surprised, for instance, at just how poorly developed the characters were, especially for a Miyazaki film. One of the greatest things about his movies are how fleshed out and three-dimensional the characters are, even the villains. There are no black and white characters; everyone has multiple layers and motivations. It’s one of the things I find most enriching about his films. However, every character in Howl’s Moving Castle felt shallow to me.
For example, Sophie is supposed to be the heroine, and yet she’s not that compelling at all, especially when compared to Chihiro in Spirited Away (who develops from a whiny little brat into a young heroine who understands the necessity and power of sacrificial love) and San in Princess Mononoke (who has a legitimate and righteous anger driving her violent actions). And the titular wizard Howl remains aloof and enigmatic throughout the film — which works well early on but makes it very hard to care about his plight when events start taking a darker turn.
Add to that some wild shifts in mood and tone, and I found myself feeling little to no urgency in the storyline. Which is odd, considering that a massive war serves as the film’s backdrop. The film tries to deliver some sort of anti-war message, but compared to the subtlety of Princess Mononoke’s environmental message (which is far more than a mere “Save the planet!” rant), Howl’s Moving Castle message feels, once again, shallow.
The other thing that surprised me was how unoriginal everything felt. With every Miyazaki film I’ve seen, there’s always been this sense of “Oh, I’ve never seen that before”. But watching Howl’s Moving Castle, I kept thinking “Hey, doesn’t Howl’s castle feel a lot like the bathhouse in Spirited Away?” Or “Those blob men sure move a lot like the tortured demon in Princess Mononoke.” Which was usually followed by something like “I saw those flying machines and glowing ring thing in Castle In The Sky”.
I realize that’s kind of nit-picky, and with most filmmakers I probably wouldn’t care, but this Hayao Miyazaki we’re talking about here, and frankly, I expected a bit more.
That being said, I’ll still pick this up when it comes out on DVD, if only to hear it in the original Japanese, because I also thought the dubbing job was quite poor, especially Billy Crystal. I’m not a huge fan of Crystal’s, but here, his schtick wore thin awfully quick. I think I chuckled at his “comedic relief” a total of two times. And was I the only one bothered by the fact that Sophie lost her English accent every time she transformed back into an old woman? Or the fact that Christian Bale didn’t use his English accent for Howl?