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Issue Date:  July 15, 2005

Serious fantasy

'Howl's Moving Castel' entrances; 'Batman Begins' tries a little too hard


Movie producers want to turn us all into children for the summer. When they put director Hayao Miyazaki (“Princess Mononoke”) in charge, it’s not a bad idea. In Howl’s Moving Castle, this Japanese master of animation has adapted a British fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones featuring an 18-year-old hat maker named Sophie (voice of Emily Mortimer). She develops a crush on the handsome young Howl (Christian Bale) but then is transformed by a jealous witch’s curse into a wrinkled 90-year-old (Jean Simmons).

Mr. Miyazaki wrote his own screenplay, adding visual details and extra slices of narrative to the original, and has made the film’s castle one of the most marvelous inventions ever captured on camera. Except for those so “religious” they believe all magic is the work of the devil, “Howl” will be welcome not only for its entrancing images but for its championing of human girl-power. It shows the elderly Sophie as a positive example of a woman still growing in old age and visualizes war as the destructive and pointless horror it really is.

The action takes place in an imagined European nation at the beginning of the 20th century. While war is going on with a neighboring kingdom, Sophie finds a certain liberation as a cleaning woman in Howl’s castle, which is kept moving by Calcifer the fire demon (Billy Crystal). The scene shifts effortlessly from place to place, with the castle’s front door opening magically (as selected from within) to Sophie’s hometown, the war-torn capital or the dream cottage Howl lived in as a child.

If the story contains violence, it is positively drenched in tenderness and humor. Disaster is averted at key points by a faithful scarecrow that has attached himself to Sophie. Even the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), the one who put the spell on Sophie, was acting out of unrequited love and finds a kind of acceptance at the end.

Howl himself remains somewhat mysterious. He clearly has some growing up to do; presumably, with Sophie’s help, that will take place with time. Viewers are left to fill out some allegorical details for themselves, but it is clear that the evil forces have come to see the war as pointless, and the good have found their way to each other.

“Howl” runs a little long, winding up several times without coming to a real climax. Nevertheless, like the three teenage girls who sat beside me, you might want to go a second time to savor its extraordinary visual beauty. Its wizardry is always flavored with wit and its surprises are nonstop. What a pleasure to find an entertaining movie with a heroine whose name and actions show the wisdom of accepting reality and offering forgiveness!

Batman Begins is also a fantasy and will make Christian Bale, who was also the voice of Howl, a superstar, but it takes itself too seriously. Director Christopher Nolan has made a close study of the Batman comic books and earlier movies, and his screenplay (written with David S. Goyer) even refers to Jung in trying to explain the development of its hero. It opens with Bruce Wayne’s childhood; we relive his original trauma in the bat cave and see his helplessness when his parents are brutally murdered by an urban tough.

The narrative proper finds Batman in a Chinese prison. There he is urged to conquer his fears through tough training by the League of Shadows, led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). Since the league’s idea of restoring balance to civilization offers only the violence of domination, Batman returns to Gotham, where he lives in an impossibly large home with a classy all-purpose butler named Alfred (Michael Caine).

The movie earns legitimate laughs in the exchanges between Bruce and Alfred, and Mr. Nolan successfully concentrates on pleasing all true Batman fans by showing how every aspect of his regalia was acquired. As in other superhero movies, the romance (Katie Holmes as Rachel) never gets off the ground, but the elevated train (built by Bruce’s father) is exciting and there are lots of chases and one-on-one fighting.

“Batman Begins” makes so much noise one may find it hard to connect the billionaire status of people like the Waynes and the desperate social conditions of Gotham City.

Fortunately, there’s also Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Wayne Industries’ technical expert, who gets fired by his corrupt boss for helping Batman. The movie’s biggest laugh comes at a board meeting when Lucius tells his former chief that he’s the president now: “Didn’t you get the memo?”

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

Quick Takes
The German director Werner Herzog (“Aguirre: The Wrath of God”) has released three documentaries this season. NCR readers should especially try to track down Wheel of Time, a film that observes a huge Buddhist gathering in India in 2002 and a smaller meeting in Austria the same year. Mr. Herzog isn’t proselytizing, but his fascinating scenes offer reasons for contemplation.

National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005

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