It?s time to take a look at the second Studio Ghibli film to be released on Blu-Ray this month. Following on from the under-par Tales From Earthsea we have the ?in-another-league? Howl?s Moving Castle. Both films were being produced at the same time, but it was Howl that was directed and overseen by the master, Miyazaki-san?and boy does it show. Where Goro Miyazaki?s film shows all the trademarks of a first-time director struggling with his art, Hayao Miyazaki?s movie shows a director at the height of his talent, confident in his adaptation of the source material. Howl sits perfectly alongside ?Spirited Away? as a modern masterpiece of animated story-telling, and it is for all the hallmarks that we have come to regard as de rigeur for a Ghibli film. Here is a movie that is at once for children and for adults, for fans of the original book and those coming fresh to the tale. It is whimsical, magical and fantastical while remaining grounded in its characters and motivations. Miyazaki-san gives us another view of his version of a pseudo-historical steampunk-lite Europe, all airships and magic, Victorian outfits and manners, middle-European architecture and colours. Much like Laputa, Lupin III and Porco Rosso, this is Miyazaki letting his love for European vistas take flight, and then rooting a very solid story in the middle of it all.
Based on but not strictly adhering to the best-selling novel of the same name by Diana Wynn Jones, the movie tells the tale of Sophie, the hard-working daughter of a hat-seller who encounters the Witch of the Waste and is cursed to look 90 years old. She flees her home and family and meets up with a mysterious magical scarecrow who leads her to the sanctuary of the infamous wizard Howl. This castle moves across the Alpine-like landscape on legs and Sophie discovers is inhabited not just by Howl, but by his young apprentice and a fire demon named Calcifer. She quickly casts herself in the role of cleaner in order to try to find a way to lift the curse upon her. In doing so she befriends the wizard and his entourage and becomes embroiled in their attempts to avoid being dragged in to a war between rival countries.
Aside from removing the Welsh and name-swapping sisters elements of the original book, Ghibli stick fairly close to the original story, but do so with their usual flourish adding more depth and life to the characters.
Sophie is far more sympathetic here, and with the legendary Jean Simmons supplying her ?elderly? voice, she becomes a character you genuinely feel for. Howl is a far less whiney wizard here, partly due to time constraints, but mostly because the audience need to fall in love with him along with Sophie. The Howl of the book is a rather harsh and overly whinging chap who I struggled to see what Sophie saw anything in. But here he is a bit emo/goth, and while Christian Bale?s ?I am Batman? gruff voice grates more often than not, he is a relatable character, fearing for his freedom and seeking the return of his heart. The real standout characters are Calcifer, voiced by Billy Crystal, and the Witch of the Waste?both amuse and entertain, but also offer a sense of depth to the storyline, of a whole world to be explored.
The film is one of Studio Ghibli?s finest, with wonderful pacing and a real sense of scale. It is a grand adventure for all ages and does a great job of blending reality with fantasy. While magic is at the core of the film, it is the very real actions of Sophie and co. that leads our heroes to success. There is also a heart to the film, where even those who have done wrong are offered a chance of salvation and peace. And of course, there is a Totoro-sized chunk of Miyzaki-styled ships, planes, palaces, cars, trams and much more. The unique Ghibli style is on full display throughout.
And so we come to the Blu-Ray itself. Unlike the rather lacklustre look of ?Tales From Earthsea?, the transfer for Howl is nothing short of magnificent. The transformation from DVD to BD is stunning. The vibrancy of colours, the sharpness of the image, the purity of the animation?all of it is beyond compare. This is Ghibli?s best looking BD to date, and the best-sounding, and it gives me great hope for what Spirited Away is going to look like. This BD will show off your system to its finest, while entertaining friends and family alike. There are, once again, some interesting extras included, such as a feature on how Miyazaki-san surprised John Lasseter at Pixar with a shock visit, bringing drool-inducing gifts. There are features on the sound and voices, the English dub and the original launch. All in all it is a wonderful package that will make Ghibli fanatics (like me) very happy indeed.
I cannot recommend this film, or this BD release highly enough. Go and get it and you?ll not be disappointed. If you?ve never bought or seen a Ghibli movie before, here is a wonderful place to start. Fall in love with the magic of Ghibli animation, it is truly something to behold.