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Two polyglot parables adapted from novels set in exotic lands, Howl’s Moving Castle and The Bridge of San Luis Rey are stylistically disparate—one is Japanimation, the other a costume drama—yet surprisingly simpatico. If the two films take rather different journeys, they end with similar prescriptions. No need to say for what, but it’s something that both wicked witches and grand inquisitors tend to lack.
After a pair of overstuffed ’toons that were set in a country that somewhat resembled his own, Howl’s Moving Castle marks writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s return to Europe. Of course, it’s a storybook Europe of wizards, enchanted landscapes, retrofuturist machinery, and, well, a moving castle. Yet this fanciful continent will be familiar territory to anyone who’s seen the auteur’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (which transpired in a sort of Stockholm) or Castle in the Sky (partially set in a land modeled on Wales)—or, for that matter, Katsuhiro Otomo’s recent Steamboy, a tale of a fantastical Victorian Britain that parallels large chunks of Miyazaki’s new movie.
Adapted from a novel by British fantasist Diana Wynne Jones—whose work is enjoying a Harry Potter–inspired renaissance—the two-hour Howl’s Moving Castle is shorter, tighter, and more coherent than the director’s last two films, the fierce eco-fable Princess Mononoke and the gentler Spirited Away, which presented an old-fashioned Japanese bathhouse as alternate universe. Yet Miyazaki has made room for many familiar gambits and themes, including ooze, transformation, teenage girls, birdmen, and war. You might say that rather than discover fresh territory in Wynne Jones’ book, the director has simply found new ways to repeat himself.
Poor but proper 18-year-old Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) works as a milliner in a bustling town of steam-powered vehicles and Alsace-style exposed-beam houses. While on her way to visit her sister, Sophie is hassled by some soldiers, then rescued by a mysterious stranger with magical powers and an Aubrey Beardsley–rock–star sort of look. This is Howl (Christian Bale), a wizard reputed—wrongly—to eat the hearts of pretty girls. Sophie’s moment with Howl, brief as it is, agitates one of his enemies, the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). She retaliates by turning Sophie, who’s already convinced that she’s unattractive, into a creaky old woman (now with the voice of Jean Simmons). Seeking a cure for her premature grayness, Sophie ventures into the forbidding Waste, where she meets a helpful scarecrow. (No, there’s not a cowardly lion, but there is a man without a heart.)
With the scarecrow’s help, Sophie manages to enter Howl’s castle, a clanking, motley contraption that travels on birdlike feet. Inside, she meets young apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and fire demon Calcifer (distractingly, Billy Crystal). She quickly becomes part of the dimension-hopping household, falls in love with tormented Howl, cleans up the wizard’s cluttered bachelor pad, and seeks to help him battle his own physical deterioration even as he tries to stop a brutal war between two neighboring kingdoms. (Howl, who’s known as different sorcerers in different places, is summoned to assist with the conflict under two separate Welsh-named identities, Pendragon and, uh, Jenkins.) After a few adventures, all of the major characters are restored or transfigured and returned to their rightful places. Then Joe Hisaishi’s syrupy score concludes with another whiff of imaginary Europe: a Michel Legrand–like credits song.
At least in its dubbed version, Howl’s Moving Castle is arguably Miyazaki’s most Americanized movie, complete with a couple of Disney-style comic sidekicks. (In addition to Calcifer, there’s a wheezing dog who helps Sophie achieve her goals.) Aside from the appeal of its richly detailed (and hand-drawn) images, the movie isn’t the ideal introduction to the animator’s work. Like Spirited Away, the film can be enjoyed simply as a gallery of superb renderings of nature, architecture, and various fantastic imaginings. After all, they easily upstage the story. Yet for anyone who’s consumed a fair amount of anime, the perfunctory script and hurried, mushy summation will seem something that a Miyazaki ’toon should never be: ordinary.
Like Howl’s Moving Castle, Irish writer-director Mary McGuckian’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey is set in a world far from its creator’s—and is full of characters in need of transformation. Of course, five of these people are already dead when the story opens. They’re the ones—not yet identified—who were spirited away when the rope bridge at San Luis Rey collapsed, dropping them into the chasm below as Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne) watched in horror. When the film opens, the Franciscan monk is discussing his “book of findings” about the victims and their fate, which has become a bigger sensation than the deaths themselves. It turns out that Juniper is on trial before the local viceroy (F. Murray Abraham), accused by the archbishop (Robert De Niro) of heresy. It’s early-18th-century Peru, so that charge is potentially a capital one.
The movie then flashes back to introduce the leading candidates for falling to their deaths, as well as a few less likely. There’s Dona Maria, Marquesa de Montemayor (Kathy Bates), who’s bereft because she is unloved by her daughter (Emilie Dequenne), now married and living in Spain; Pepita (Adriana Dominguez), an aspiring nun who was torn from the convent when its abbess (Geraldine Chaplin) assigned her to be the marquesa’s companion; Uncle Pio (Harvey Keitel), the roguish theatrical producer who has dedicated himself to building the career of an actress called La Perichole (Pilar López De Ayala), a former beauty who’s known sexual satisfaction with many men—including the viceroy—but doesn’t experience genuine love until the birth of her illegitimate son; Esteban and Manuel (Michael and Mark Polish), the mute twins with an intense attachment to each other and very little else—until Manuel is mesmerized by La Perichole; and Captain Alvarado (John Lynch, the director’s husband), who eventually also watches the bridge collapse. (In America writer-director Jim Sheridan also has a cameo, as Spain’s King Philip V.)
Published in 1927, Thornton Wilder’s novel was first filmed just two years later, then again in 1944. McGuckian wanted to try her hand at the story for a decade, and the project was re-energized when Tony Blair quoted from Wilder’s book at a memorial service for victims of the 9/11 attacks. McGuckian’s rendition is respectable, if a trifle overdeliberate: When we get to the part on the bridge, it seems as if the ropes creak and moan for about a week before they finally give way. As happens in many costume dramas populated with mainstream stars, some of the actors initially seem out of place, but they settle into their roles nicely. Even Keitel, who usually becomes less convincing with every step he takes away from Brooklyn, doesn’t undermine the illusion that these characters—filmed in Spain and speaking English—are actually in colonial Peru.
Credited to three countries and nine production companies and apparently shelved for several years, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the sort of moderate-budget prestige production that seems destined for TV. Given its preference for narrative over ideas, perhaps that’s where it belongs. A livelier sensibility could have produced a film that moved more briskly, cut with more flair, and emphasized the themes rather than the characters. In the wake of 9/11, Brother Juniper’s supposed heresy is the most interesting aspect of the tale, but it’s the least developed here. Though he pays a terrible price for his musings on fate and grace, we barely even learn what they are.CP