ROGER EBERT SHOCKER!
(Will anime fans be Howl-ing in protest?)
Today's the day when Hayao Miyazaki's latest film, Howl's Moving Castle, opens in limited release in "select cities" in the United States and Canada, and it will be getting a wider release, though not a wide release, next weekend.
Pretty much everything I had been predicting seems to have come to pass, that Howl's Moving Castle would get a modestly wider release than Spirited Away got initially and would get a modestly better advertising campaign. We're still getting the usual whining on movie and anime message boards about Disney not giving this a proper "wide" release, but, while anime is unarguable more popular in North America now than it was a decade ago, anime is still, and will likely always be "niche", and I honestly don't think there is the market for a true wide release of a serious anime film with an expensive saturation-level advertising campaign to be profitable, as anime is not a medium that most North Americans would care to watch. Major studios like Disney, Sony (Columbia/Tristar), and Dreamworks are distributing anime films primarily because there's enough of a profit to be made from the DVD releases to be interesting to them; they aren't expecting to break any records at the box office. Plus, in the specific case of Disney and Ghibli, Disney couldn't market a Ghibli film in the same way that they market one of their own animated films or a Pixar film even if they wanted to, because Disney likes to cross-promote the animated films they release with stuffed toys and games and fast-food promotions (and the toy shelves is where a lot of the additional profits for the studio from the wide release of children's films is made), but, due to quality control issues (and the possibility of reverse importation into Japan of cheaper North American goods), Studio Ghibli prohibits Disney from doing most forms of mass-merchandising of their films, with a handful of exceptions, like some books, calendars, and a handful of t-shirts. If Disney can't advertise the film by putting Sophie and Howl on the side of french fry containers and Coke cups at McDonald's, and stuffed versions of Calcifer at Wal-Mart, it has little incentive to release this kind of movie "wide". And, just to add something new that I haven't said before, let's say I accepted, just for the sake of argument, the idea that we haven't already reached, if not passed, the "high water" mark for the domestic popularity of anime and the market is far from saturated and a lot more North Americans would be anime fans if they were properly exposed to it; so far, anime, excluding a handful of films tied into kiddy mass-merchandising franchise TV cartoons (and, even of those, only the first two Pokémon films can be considered modestly successful), has only proven itself successful in limited release. Howl's Moving Castle will be the first real test of a serious anime film in medium-level release ("limited wide" release), and I think anime has to prove to be successful with this intermediate level of release before any major studio would consider giving an non-franchise anime film a wide release. People can, quite correctly, point out that I have no experience in marketing and am somewhat speaking out of my ass on this, but, unlike the message board whiners, who also tend to have no experience running expensive movie marketing campaigns, I'm not the one trying to second-guess the decisions made by the people who are in charge of marketing.
Whew! Anyway, my April Fool's Day joke aside, I was expecting that Howl's Moving Castle would only get around 500 to 800 screens at best, and that seems to be panning out.
However, there is one thing I did not expect that has somewhat thrown me for a loop: Chicago Sun-Times Über-critic Roger Ebert, Hayao Miyazaki's most prominent booster in North America, has given Howl's Moving Castle a mediocre review.
"I settled back in my seat, confident that Japan's Hayao Miyazaki had once again created his particular kind of animated magic, and that the movie would deserve comparison with "Spirited Away," "Princess Mononoke," "My Neighbor Totoro," "Kiki's Delivery Service" and the other treasures of the most creative animator in the history of the art form.
But it was not to be. While the movie contains delights and inventions without pause and has undeniable charm, while it is always wonderful to watch, while it has the Miyazaki visual wonderment, it's a disappointment, compared to his recent work.
All of this is presented, as only Miyazaki can, in animation of astonishing invention and detail. The Castle itself threatens to upstage everything else that happens in the movie, and notice the way its protuberances move in time with its lumbering progress, not neglecting the sphincteresque gun turret at the rear. Sophie, old or young, never quite seems to understand and inhabit this world; unlike Nikki of the delivery service or Chihiro, the heroine of "Spirited Away," she seems more witness than heroine. A parade of weird characters comes onstage to do their turns, but the underlying plot grows murky and, amazingly for a Miyazaki film, we grow impatient at spectacle without meaning.
I can't recommend the film, and yet I know if you admire Miyazaki as much I do you'll want to see it, anyway."
He gave it **½/****, which, mathmatically, translates to a 62.5% rating, theoretically putting it just barely in "Fresh" territory with the RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer, though RottenTomatoes.com gave it a "Rotten" icon, perhaps because Ebert expicitly said that he could not recommend the film. Currently, the total "Tomatometer" for Howl's Moving Castle is at 86%, with 42 "Fresh" and 7 "Rotten" (including Ebert), and an average rating of 7.7 out of 10. You get some critics still following the Spirited Away breathless review template (if Hayao Miyazaki took a dump and the shit left a streak on the side of the toilet, the shit streak would be a masterpiece!), but many other critics think it's pretty good, but not great, which is more or less what I expect I think I will think of it, and, now that Ebert's thrown down the gauntlet, I'd imagine, when the film is in wider release next weekend, there won't be the critical herd mentality that there was for Spirited Away and more critics won't be afraid to give a Miyazaki film a lukewarm or negative review.
More importantly, as far as I'm concerned, this is a major strike against, though not a fatal blow to, Howl's Moving Castle's chances at earning a second Best Animated Feature Oscar for Hayao Miyazaki, since I honestly believe that, if Roger Ebert hadn't been such a big booster for Spirited Away during Oscar campaign season, most Academy members would have skipped the film altogether and
EDIT: Huh? I just noticed that Ebert called Kiki, from Kiki's Delivery Service (which is easily my favourite Ghibli film), "Nikki". I guess even he makes mistakes sometimes.