At a time when computer imagery can do just about everything except inspire a genuine sense of wonder, Hayao Miyazaki's hand-crafted animation serves as a reminder of what it means to be truly amazed. Each of his features is a dazzlingly beautiful, endlessly inventive parable, often about youth and adulthood, and while not as cohesive as his masterpiece,...read more
At a time when computer imagery can do just about everything except inspire a genuine sense of wonder, Hayao Miyazaki's hand-crafted animation serves as a reminder of what it means to be truly amazed. Each of his features is a dazzlingly beautiful, endlessly inventive parable, often about youth and adulthood, and while not as cohesive as his masterpiece, the Academy Award-winning SPIRITED AWAY (2001), this magical adventure delivers the goods. Sophie (voice of Emily Mortimer), a pretty but prematurely frumpy young milliner, toils in what appears to be a fin-de-siècle Europe where all Jules Verne's daydreams have come true. After a brief but romantic encounter with a dashing young wizard, Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie must face the wrath of the jealous Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), a vindictive sorceress who, in the blink of an eye, transforms young Sophie into an old crone. Hoping the Witch will undo her handiwork, the aged Sophie (screen legend Jean Simmons) searches the desolate country known as the Wastes. After freeing a mute, turnip-headed scarecrow from a gnarly bush, Sophie is led by her grateful new friend to an unexpected shelter — Howl's "castle," a huffing, puffing shambolic mass of copper turrets and metal pipes that moves about like some infernal Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Surprised but determined to find her tormentor, Sophie offers to stay on as Howl's housekeeper and tend to Calcifer (a typically shticky Billy Crystal), the mouthy fire demon who powers Howl's castle and remains bound to his master by a mysterious spell. Howl, who doesn't let on that he knows exactly who Sophie is, has been using his powers to avoid fighting alongside his fellow wizards and witches in the terrible war that's been raging since the young prince of a neighboring country disappeared. Sophie offers to visit the King and intercede on Howl's behalf, but instead of saving the wizard, she attracts the attention of a second, even more powerful sorceress, Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner), who warns Sophie that the wizard with whom she's fallen in love isn't precisely what he seems. True to Miyazaki's primary sources — Diana Wynne Jones' original novel, L. Frank Baum's Oz tales, Lewis Carroll's Alice stories, Russia's Baba Yaga folktales, Japanese fantasy — Sophie's world is filled with rabbit holes, passageways, avatars and physical transformations, and the story gets too convoluted to follow. But once that massive steel airship lets loose a flock of evil flying frogs, each sporting a top hat and mask à la Fantomas, and Sophie dares to enters Howl's secret lair, a dark tunnel incongruously encrusted with all the detritus of childhood, you'll gladly surrender to the whole gorgeous muddle.
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