'Howl's Moving Castle': Fantastical, Full of Heart

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan says Howl's Moving Castle, a new animated film from by Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, is fantastical but has heart. Miyazaki is best known to U.S. audiences for his wildly successful film Spirited Away.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A new film from director Hayao Miyazaki opens today here in Los Angeles, as well as in New York. It may not sound like big news to you, but consider this: Miyazaki's last film, "Spirited Away," was the highest-grossing movie of all time in Japan. In this country, it won the Oscar for best animated feature in 2003. Miyazaki's latest is called "Howl's Moving Castle," and it's already a sensation in Japan. Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN (Film Critic):

Hayao Miyazaki is the great genius of contemporary animation, and his new film is the product of a fearless visual imagination. "Howl's Moving Castle" is based on a novel of the same name by veteran British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones. It's set in an alternate universe that is half strange, half familiar.

(Soundbite of "Howl's Moving Castle")

Unidentified Woman #1: It's incredible. Did you use your magic to make this?

Unidentified Man #1: Only a little, just to help the flowers grow.

(Soundbite of water)

Unidentified Man #1: Look there.

Unidentified Woman #1: What a cute cottage!

TURAN: It's a world where everyday buildings and costumes share the screen with fantastic Jules Verne-type flying battleships. Ordinary people have to cope with the incursions of witches and wizards into their lives.

(Soundbite of "Howl's Moving Castle")

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm sorry, but the shop's closed now, ma'am.

Unidentified Woman #3: What a tacky shop. I've never seen such tacky little hats. Yet you're by far the tackiest thing here.

Unidentified Woman #2: The door is over here, ma'am.

Unidentified Woman #3: Standing up to the Witch of the West--that's class.

(Soundbite of crashing noise)

TURAN: It's all set against hand-drawn backdrops that look almost like paintings. Like much of Miyazaki's output, including 1997's "Princess Mononoke," "Howl" is centered around the adventures of an intrepid young woman. She learns about the powers of love and kindness, the healing properties of the natural world and the horrific evils of war. These beliefs are strongly held, but they're never allowed to overwhelm the remarkable visuals. In fact, Miyazaki's gift for wonder, his ease with fantasy even obliterates differences in language. Whether you see the English-dubbed version or, as will be possible in selected cities, the original Japanese, the film's look is so overpowering you end up barely noticing which language is being used.

That's good, because Miyazaki, who writes his own scripts, prefers a narrative structure that takes its own time. It's difficult to pin down. The film follows a through line that is emotional, not logical. It's a story beyond words that we understand with our hearts more than our minds.

(Soundbite of "Howl's Moving Castle")

Unidentified Woman #1: Are you a howl?

Unidentified Man #2: No, I'm an extremely powerful fire demon named Calcifer. I just like to do that once in a while.

Unidentified Woman #1: You should be able to break my curse.

Unidentified Man #2: Maybe, maybe not. Listen, if you can find a way to break the spell that's on me, then I'll break the spell that's on you.

Unidentified Woman #1: How do I know I can trust you?

Unidentified Man #2: Come on, you should feel sorry for me. That spell keeps me stuck in this castle and Howl treats me like I'm his slave. It burns me up! If you can figure out how to break this thing I'm in with Howl, then you can break my spell. After that, I can easily break the spell that's on you.

Unidentified Woman #1: All right.

TURAN: Though its story comes from a book, rather than Miyazaki's fantastic imagination, "Howl's Moving Castle" is just as magical as the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away," and it's just as likely to make viewers feel they've never seen anything quite like it before.

(Soundbite of "Howl's Moving Castle")

Unidentified Woman #1: Aahhh!

Unidentified Man #3: Hold on.

MONTAGNE: Ken Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

(Soundbite of "Howl's Moving Castle")

Unidentified Woman #1: Find me in the future!

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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