I wouldn’t exactly call these reviews hot off the presses, however I would call my jokes terrible.
It’s an important measure to observe what conclusions professional critics have drawn on films, making note of what they are focusing on and understanding how it reflects what viewers may be seeing. The same quality has different effects from critic to critic, allowing a widespread sample of what may or may not ‘work’ within a work. I looked to reviews from A. O. Scott at the New York Times, David Rooney at Variety magazine, and Roger Ebert at the Sun Times in order to better grasp what the grasping minds of the film-critic world sought to make point of for Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 film, Howl’s Moving Castle. In observing these reviews it was made clear that there were a variety of receptions of the film, some regarding the fidelity of the adaptation with others attentive to the film in it’s own right.
New York Times
The review begins by lumping this film with Miyazaki’s others, claiming it “demonstrates his visual ingenuity and his sensitivity as a storyteller.” As a result it seems he has received this as kin to his other works, as if it is simply another wondrous Miyazaki film on a growing list. The New York Times finds something likable in all the characters of the film, and offers very little criticism to their development or qualities. In the review, Scott attributes a romantic feminism to the character of Sophie, but does not expand on the depth to which it is present. This quality or similar qualities are not mentioned in the Variety or Sun Times reviews, peculiarly. Scott barely refers to the work as an adaptation, the only mention being in his introduction as “freely adapted”. This makes a subtle note of the free aspect, the pure addition or subtraction from the original. “There is certainly plenty of adventure in store… some inspired by the book, others entirely of his own devising” claims Scott. This is a point many other reviews are also critical of, each receiving the film differently. The New York Times review vocalizes only support of this work as an overall success itself, making few notable negative critical observations such as Billy Crystal’s overacting in his role of Calcifer. It suggests one simply observe openly, which feels like a legitimate measure for adaptations in particular.
Scott looked at a number of things in the review for the Times. He commented on the wise old woman role in Miyazaki’s past work and how this novel adaptation twists what he may do with that, which is to say a female who is torn between young and old. More on the surface, he harped on the range of rich scenery and variety of moods presented in the film from setting to setting. Other critics would follow in his observations on the presence of militarism in the film, from where it was drawn, and how Sophie becomes attached to it. As for the more personal, inner workings, Scott toyed with the complexity of the feelings that Sophie has for Howl, including “maternal solicitude, sisterly affection and adolescent infatuation”. Lastly, and drawing from these same workings of relationships, Scott observes the bonds that the Witch of the Waste has with Sophie, and the bonds that Howl has with Calcifer.
In his review of Howl’s Moving Castle, David Rooney made clear from the start that this movie made use of what he calls “anime sensibility”, which sits in opposition to the “western fairy tale feel” that the movie was supposed to adapt for Diana Wynne Jones novel. Rooney Observes inconsistency with the novel, citing “radical metamorphoses” that Miyazaki is notorious for portraying in his movies. The fairy tale wasnt enough for Miyazaki, this review asserts, not satisfied with a director’s tendency to litter on content (another review I misplaced mentions an overuse of flying machines in his works). Interestingly enough, the review becomes ensorcelled with the transformed world that one finds within the film, as well as the multiple concerns characters have and the storylines that emerge on screen as a result. Rooney is critical on the confusing nature of Sophie’s journey, claiming that it would be an improvement to focus more on the removal of her curse; The Times article was more accepting of the expanse of Sophie’s adventure, as if the bits on the side were of her own desire (apart from the film’s mechanic of required silence of the curse, also found in the book). Rooney finishes up the review how Scott begun for the Times, comparing this work to Miyazaki’s others (Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke in particular) this time claiming that it does not live up to them, but remains full of wonder nonetheless.
This review read far more critically than the Times, systematically focusing in on and moving past what Rooney sees fit. Rooney interprets the scenery as a story-forged hybrid setting, fueled by some “anime sensibility” that is released from Miyazaki’s subconscious. He makes mention of the characters and mechanics appearing within the story as they come, commenting on the Witch of the Waste’s outfit and entourage, the peculiar arrival of Turnip scarecrow, the appearance of the Castle itself, and the characters inside of it; Markl the assistant, Howl the magician, and Calcifer the demon. The militant elements come up again in this review as well, with Rooney noting that the “zeppelin bombers and battleships plaguing the country… never really becomes a significant factor in the narrative,fading in and out of focus a little too distractedly;” For this I detect Rooney has a bit of appreciation, perhaps attributed to his stance on the book and this film’s position as its adaptation.
Just like the other reviewers, Roger Ebert at the Sun Times invokes Miyazaki’s earlier works in his analysis of Howl’s Moving Castle. It is apparent from his review, and put quite bluntly, that “it’s a disappointment compared to his recent work.” This appears to be the consensus amongst critics, each of them observing in some degree that “it’s good, but it’s no Princess Mononoke”. Despite his assertion of this particular gripe, he does not let it rob from all the wonderment the film dishes out. Ebert displays a fondness toward the castle itself, focusing a large portion of the review describing it. It is this largeness of the castle, in fact, that assists in his label of ‘disappointment'; compared to this hulking machine, Sophie seems “more witness than heroine” and because of this, viewers may “grow impatient at spectacle without meaning.”
Even though Ebert was clear in his low ranking of this film amongst it’s kin, he was able to focus in on detail and critique a good amount of the film’s content. For instance, he regards the visual invention of the Castle and the charm the movie brings. The Castle is but one of the shape-shifters of the film, a theme Ebert mentions in passing that is absolutely a presence within each character in addition. He pays mind to the characters and their motivations in his own form, much like Scott, Rooney and (hopefully) all other reviewers and observers do. There is also a bit of detailed cross referencing present in this review, unlike the others; Ebert explores the similarities of old-Sophie’s appearance and personality to characters from another Miyazki film, Spirited Away, Yubaba and her sister as well as a reoccuring manipulation of young heroines (citing Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away)