DVD Review
by Kevin Carr

    MOVIE: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)

    Jean Simmons as OLD SOPHIE
    Christian Bale as HOWL
    Lauren Bacall as THE WITCH OF THE WASTE
    Blythe Danner as MADAM SULIMAN
    Emily Mortimer as YOUNG SOPHIE
    Billy Chrystal as CALCIFER

    Rated PG
    Studio: Studio Ghibli/Disney

    Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
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Outside of fans of anime, not a whole lot of people knew what Studio Ghibli was before “Spirited Away” took home an Oscar in 2003 for Best Animated Feature. Originally, Troma released the films in the U.S., but in the 1990s, Disney got these rights. Since the American breakthrough of “Spirited Away,” the Walt Disney company has been releasing its slate of Studio Ghibli features newly re-dubbed in English for the states.

They are also importing new films from Japan. The latest one is “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which was also up for an Academy Award this year. (It lost to “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”)

“Howl’s Moving Castle” has been moving through the cineplexes around the country, and finally it has landed on DVD. Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, it tells the story of a young girl named Sophie who is cursed by a witch who lives in the wastelands after she caught the eye of the mysterious wizard Howl. Sophie’s curse is that she has grown frightfully old, but she can’t tell anyone about her plight.

To try and break the spell, Sophie goes into the wastelands in search of someone to break the curse. She meets up with Howl and climbs aboard his magical castle, which literally walks along the countryside while keeping portals open to different cities in the land.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” has the distinct feel of Studio Ghibli. There’s a warmth about the film, although it deals with some very heavy and dark subjects. The animation itself is highly detailed, featuring nuances of characters and behavior that are a treat to watch. As would be expected from Hayao Miyazaki’s previous work, this film is visionary and epic. It’s overall design reminded me of “The Triplets of Belleville,” only with a more grounded – albeit still fantastic – story.

The English voice cast is very astute, and the re-dubbing quality is superb. With very few lines out of synch, you might believe this was originally written for the English language. Of course, this is a feature of the film that will go unnoticed to the ordinary viewer – and that’s exactly why it is so well done. While the actors all do a fine job, Billy Crystal actually steals the show as the fire demon Calcifer who keeps the castle afoot.

The animation comes together nicely, using more 3-D modeling and computer work than I’ve seen in the past. There’s still some ways to go to get things seamlessly integrated into the 2-D frame, but the work is pretty decent.

The DVD comes in a double-disc set. However, the second disc – like all the Studio Ghibli releases from Disney – is devoted to the original Japanese storyboards of the film. For the animation fan, these are priceless, but they lose some appeal beyond that.

Other special features on this DVD include a “Behind the Microphone” documentary which highlights the English-speaking actors who bring the film to life. With Pixar’s involvement in the development of this English-language version of the film, there is an interview with Pixar Director Pete Docter as well as a home-video chronicle of Hayao Miyazaki’s visit to the studio’s offices. The original TV spots and trailers round out the special features.

Overall, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is intriguing, and it will definitely get you to think. It offers rich characters and fascinating settings. There is a certain degree of convolution that comes from many anime films, however. Miyazaki has done better, and his epic style might get the best of him in this film a bit. Still, it is nonetheless a journey worth taking.

Specifications: English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. Widescreen (1.85:1), enhanced for 16x9 televisions. English subtitles for the hearing impaired.

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