Howl's Moving Castle marks the third Ghibli movie to receive a large-scale theatrical release, courtesy of the folks at Disney. Their first, Princess Mononoke, although highly acclaimed (for the most part), failed to repeat the sterling business of its Japanese box office take; Spirited Away fared considerably better, although it barely cracked $10 million. Sadly, Howl took in only about half as much as Spirited, but of course, went on to have a solid afterlife on DVD. As with the previous Disney-distributed Ghibli films, a dub was recorded, consisting of famous names and screen legends. The reactions to the dub, as usual, were mixed, with the usual supporters and detractors (for every person who relishes the actors in the dubs, there are others who refuse to listen to it.)
Love it or hate it, though, it cannot be denied that Howl's Moving Castle is a very fine dub, although considering the consistently top-notch track record for previous Ghibli productions, it really isn't so surprising. As directed by Pete Docter (the man behind Monsters Inc. and Up), and adapted by the now expected team of Cindy and Donald Hewitt, the dub is the usual mix of star-studded actors and experienced voice artists.
HOWL (Christian Bale) -- The title character of Miyazaki's interpretation of Diana Wynne Jones' beloved fantasy is a dashingly handsome but enigmatic wizard. He is very charismatic and has a charm that enchants many a lady, but he can also be, at other times, tormented, childish, self-centered, caring, cowardly, and courageous. It was decided to cast Christian Bale for the part. Ironically enough, this choice has drawn the typical split reaction that most lead characters in Ghibli dubs often face -- there were viewers who found him to be an ideal choice and effective, but there were others who declared that he was miscast and ultimately underwhelmed the character. Divided views aside, Bale has voice acted before as a minor character in Disney's Pocahontas, but Howl is quite different. He intones his lines in a very deep voice, which effectively conveys both the character's sensual appeal and unusual nature. In at least two scenes, Howl speaks as a fearsome, gryphon-like creature--the gritty, raspy tone that Bale brings to these moments will remind viewers of his work in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. There are a couple of places where some of his lines sound a little too monotonous, and it is somewhat curious that Bale decided not to use his natural British accent for the character; after all this is a British fantasy. Nonetheless, these are only minor quibbles of an otherwise fine performance. (One of my personal favorite parts from him is the scene where he throws a tantrum after his hair is "sabotaged"--Bale lets loose in this scene without overacting, and it's all the more funny for it.)
SOPHIE (Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons) -- Aside from Howl, the real main character of the story is Sophie. There are two different incarnations of this character, as noted from the use of two different actresses. First, there is young Sophie, a beautiful but very reserved young woman who is rather mousey and soft-spoken. Emily Mortimer conveys young Sophie's fragile nature in a way that feels very genuine and natural. She also does an excellent job of bringing out her more emotional moments (her concern for Howl, and screams of terror, for instance) without overdoing it.
The film is barely halfway through when our heroine is transformed (by the Witch of the Waste) into "Grandma" Sophie, an aged woman with an aching back and an arguably fiestier nature than her younger counterpart. Interestingly, in the Japanese version, the actress voicing Sophie plays both versions of her character, but here, her older "form" is portrayed by the late Jean Simmons. One strange oddity is that Mortimer speaks with a somewhat light British accent, and Simmons does not. Issue aside, Jean sounds like she is really into her character, obviously relishing such funny moments as when Sophie expresses her frustration over being cursed ("If I ever get my hands on that witch, I'm going to ring her fat neck!" before responding with a very sharp "Finish your breakfast!" to the surprised Markl) and very relaxed when she is saying softer, less forceful dialogue. Her crying scene, too, is very effective and doesn't sound strained. It's unfortunate that Simmons isn't with us anymore, but her voice will definitely live on as Old Sophie. All told, both versions of this character are voiced excellently.
LETTIE (Jena Malone) -- Sophie's younger sister, who works at a bakery, has a very small part, showing up for only one scene (the one where Sophie is just recovering from her first encounter with Howl). Her primary role is to warn her sister that her newest "friend" may actually be dangerous (something which naturally turns out to be not true). For this minor role, Malone gives her a somewhat higher-pitched voice with a thick British accent. It is very appropriate for the character, and her acting never hits a false note. I've always admired how Disney's dubs give a lot of thought to even the minor supporting roles in these movies, and this is no exception.
WITCH OF THE WASTE (Lauren Bacall) -- When Docter approached Bacall for this role, she confessed, "Dahling, I was born to play despicable!" There couldn't have been a more ideal choice for this character, who initially starts out as sinister and creepy (not to mention condescending, hence she uses the word "tacky" to describe Sophie's character and environment), then becomes exhausted and breathy (as her outer beauty literally melts away to reveal her true form--starting from her tortorous climb up the stairs to Suliman's palace), and ultimately, becomes a kindly grandmother. (Even so, she is still caught smoking a cigar and nearly gets our pals into trouble by her own greed for Howl's heart.) Bacall nails all these facets of her character to a T and beyond; her sultry voice is equally effective, with a slight air of "prissiness" to convey the Witch's authority.
CALCIFER (Billy Crystal) -- Yet another alumni from The Princess Bride gets to be in a Ghibli dub, this time it's Miracle Max himself as the film's truly memorable character, Calcifer, a self-proclaimed "fire demon" who mostly resides in the hearth of Howl's castle. (What next, Robin Wright Penn for The Borrower Arriety?) The tone of voice he uses for this little guy is somewhat similar to Phil Hartman's tone for Jiji from Kiki's Delivery Service, only his character is less of a zany smart aleck and more of a down-to-earth type. He gets to be grumpy, critical, fussy, and even show bits of elation (notably when he reacts to Sophie's compliment, "She likes MY SPARK!" -- which brings some echoes of his role from Monsters Inc.). Like Bale, Crystal's Calcifer has gotten the usual love/hate reaction -- for fans of the dub, he steals the show (adding to the traditional "stand-out" role that typically characterizes these dubs), but for others he was an obnoxiously grating distraction that was not complimentary to the character or the film at all. Whatever side of the fence you're on, it cannot be denied that Crystal obviously enjoys himself in every second of his role, and the chuckles he emits from audiences are a testament to that. (And yes, he IS my favorite voice in the dub.)
MARKL (Josh Hutcherson) -- Aside from Calcifer, the only other person who lives in Howl's castle is Markl (initially named Michael), a small boy who (aside from being the spitting image of Ket from Kiki's Delivery Service) serves as an apprentice magician. Whenever a customer comes calling (where the magic transportation dial of the castle switches colors), he often dons a cloak and disguises himself with a large grey beard. I wager this must have been an early role for Hutcherson, because in many of the subsequent films I've seen him in (Zathura, and arguably most memorably, Bridge to Terabithia), he obviously has grown quite a bit. So it was a good thing that he was cast while he was around the character's age! Hutcherson obviously enjoys the bits where he has to pose as an old man for customers (deepening his voice in the process), but he's also conveys the other aspects of his character very effectively--this shows in his growing love for Sophie and in how he cares for the Witch of the Waste. His screams of "Sophie" are also very effective and never once sound obnoxious or irritating. Great work all around.
MADAME SULIMAN (Blythe Danner) -- The most surprising aspect about this icy character is that she only shows up for two scenes. That probably is more of a criticism of the script, but since Suliman doesn't have much screen time, it's somewhat difficult to determine if she is a genuine villainess or just a misunderstood grump. But as confused as the nature of the character may be, it in no way affects Danner's voicing of her. The soft, yet cold tone she uses is properly affective for the part and she does a good job sounding contemptous without being "over-the-top".
KING (Mark Silverman) -- Anyone familiar with Silverman's voicing for King Jihl in Nausicaa will probably know what to expect for his brief cameo as the King: soft-spoken, authoritative, and natural. Actually, when we meet him, for the first time, he turns out to be Howl in disguise. (Hence he declares that he refuses to use magic in a war that his country is fighting--a subplot that never really feels fleshed out.) The real King shows up about several seconds later, where he guffaws at his own clone with pompous amusement. Silverman handles both of these parts very well.
HONEY (Mari Devon) -- As with Lettie, Sophie's stepmother has a very small part; near the end of the film she shows up at the newly refurbished hat shop to beg Sophie to stay with her and her new husband. While speaking with an American accent, Devon amusingly nails the overly smothering qualities of this latter scene, sounding effectively obnoxious, desperate, and, later on, regretful. Since her character appears so briefly, it's difficult to evaluate her overall performance, but for the time that she's on, it's solid work overall.
PRINCE (Crispin Freeman) -- Aside from Crystal, the surprise of the dub is Mr. Freeman as a character who only appears at the end. (Actually, he spends most of the film as a bouncing scarecrow dubbed "Turniphead".) Freeman has always expressed his passion for Miyazaki's work, and to hear him voice a character in one of his films is not only a treat, but a dream come true for this actor. The tone of voice he uses for the prince is very similar to the earnest, youthful quality heard in characters such as Tylor and Spark (from Lodoss TV); but the genuine enthusiasm he brings to this minor character is what really makes any dub involving him a pleasure. Here's hoping that Crispin will get to have other parts in future Ghibli dubs.
Aside from the performances (which include the usual background voices), the writing, direction, and overall production values for Howl's Moving Castle are as impeccable as one would expect from a Disney dub, sounding as professional and polished as a film of this caliber would demand. (The lip sync is sometimes uneven, but not to the point of distraction.) While I wouldn't call this my favorite Ghibli dub, Howl certainly earns its place alongside the other Disney-Pixar produced English tracks for these films. It's remarkable that the Ghibli-Disney partnership has resulted with great translations such as this, and one hopes that trend will continue.