Billy Crystal. In a name, this is what's wrong with Howl's Moving Castle -- an anime/Disney hybrid that I was hoping would be a lot more fun.
I confess to being a grownup who became a fan of Hayao Miyazaki's animation when my daughters pestered me to see 2001's Oscar-winning Spirited Away. It had been years since I'd watched an animated movie. After all, a dad needs a break after spending the diaper years with Lady and the Tramp, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Snow White and even Frodo of the Nine Fingers.
Spirited Away was so different. It had a grittier story line than the Disney staple of a winsome lass falling in love with some prince. The colors were brighter. The characters were often enigmatic and downright weird. So perhaps I expected too much of Howl's Moving Castle -- expected that it wouldn't be Disneyfied.
But there's that darn Billy Crystal, cracking wise. Seriously, folks, ya gotta hand it to him; the guy's got a lot of hearth. Yuk-yuk.
Aaaaiiiieeee!, as they say. Everything that made Spirited Away interesting has been dumbed down in Howl's. Instead of refreshingly unfamiliar Japanese backgrounds and funky characters, Howl's appears to be set in a sort of generic Europe. The characters come straight from Lady and the Tramp, with handlebar mustaches and straw boaters on many of the background characters.
The castle itself -- with metallic chicken feet, a chomping big mouth and swaying smokestacks -- appears to have been lifted from the sketchbook of Monty Python's Flying Circus 40 years ago. Howl, voiced by Christian Bale, looks more like David Bowie than any wizard should.
And the story is so thin it doesn't let you forget your butt is getting sore during the two-hour running time.
Look, Howl's Moving Castle is a nice movie. It has an antiwar message. The animation is beautiful and richly detailed. There are plenty of interesting things to look at -- from fantastical aircraft that look like giant metallic fish to creepy, goopy bad guys who can ooze out of walls -- but it just doesn't add up to a complete story.
I still don't know what the wizard Howl does exactly when he flies around in the blackness observing the war. He never seems to use his magic for anything except to get beat up.
Sophie is a lonely, winsome heroine who has a thrilling moment when she meets a dashing young man. But even before her heart gets a chance to go pitter-pat, she's turned into an old crone by a wicked witch.
I spent most of the movie thinking she was the Wicked Witch of the West, just with a Scottish accent; turns out she's the Wicked Witch of the Waste.
There are plenty of double crosses and hidden agendas and funny lines. Ultimately, though, the movie comes down to a winsome lass falling in love with a princely wizard. And in a castle, no less, that she scrubbed herself.