The first long shot of Howl’s castle, moving through the fog of an Alpine pasture, is a doozy: its bullfrog-battleship bulk huffing and chunting along on a set of sure-clawed chicken-legs, it’s the sort of organic-hydraulic hybrid at which Miyazaki excels. The innards prove less impressive, especially for anyone imagining a bustling citadel to rival the divine bath-house of ‘Spirited Away’; with activity largely restricted to a kitchen-living room, it feels more like Howl’s moving bedsit. Still, it’s an apt symbol for a film whose copious initial charm diminishes on closer acquaintance. Freely adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’ novel, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ is the story of Sophie, a hard-working, self-effacing teenager who takes refuge with the wizard Howl after being transformed into a crone by the Witch of the Waste (a well-coutured whale of a woman voiced by Lauren Bacall). Supposedly fearsome, Howl turns out to be a drama queen with a yellow streak – albeit a rather dashing one, in an androgynous, Manga sort of way. Meanwhile mobilisation is underway for a total war in which magic is merely another WMD. The set-up offers plenty of dazzle, from the milieu – an exquisitely rendered high imperial/pastoral fantasia of nineteenth century Europe – to supernatural aspects such as the Witch’s glutinous goons (complete with boaters). Unfortunately, the increasingly baggy structure and fluctuating tone – now wartime intrigue, now pretend family heart-warmer – make it harder and harder to engage. The risibly cloying closing scenes are likely to nix any remaining goodwill, blotting out such delicate early touches as a stroll through the air far above a town square.
Friday September 23 2005