Another week, another "edgy" filmmaker falls in bed with Hollywood hackdom. Just a bit ago it was Doug Liman molding the Pitt-Jolie tabloid item into Mr. and Mrs. Smith, now it's Christopher Nolan scrambling to jolt the Batman juggernaut back to life, though his joyless opus, Batman Begins, purports to be a fresh start. Really not a bad idea, considering that the camp-glitter bacchanalias the series had dissolved into in Joel Schumacher's hands was making the original Adam West '60s TV series look like a Bressonian tract by comparison. So, no batsuit nipples for Nolan and Co. -- it's back to the grim roots of creator Bob Kane, or perhaps Frank Miller's Batman: Year Zero graphic novel, with no noir trope left unturned for the gloomy reinvention of the Dark Knight. Or maybe Nolan and his co-screenwriter, David Blade Goyer, got paid by portentous utterance of the word "fear" -- thus, "to conquer fear you must become fear," "we have nothing to fear but fear itself," and "that is power... the power of fear." Fear of a black bat? A childhood dip into a bat-infested well plays "Rosebud" to this interpretation of Gothan City's big brooder, but since this is the "serious" retelling, there's more traumatic baggage down the chute, more than enough to justify Christian Bale's dourness as the titular Caped One.
Actually, the avenger-persona doesn't make an appearance until over one hour into the film, after a properly Jedi training in Asiatic icy expanses with, naturally, Liam Neeson. Young Bruce Wayne (Bale), blaming himself for his parents' alley mugging-cum-shooting, is shanghaied from a Chinese penitentiary by Ducard (Neeson) to be inducted into the "League of Shadows," a vigilante ninja organization lorded over by Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). The Batman psyche is pieced together with heavy intonations ("You have learned to bury your guilt with anger," etc.) just as the Batman regalia is pieced together from ominous detailing (the pointy mask ears from an operatic tenor, the cape from his slain father's tux jacket), just in time for the trip back to Gotham to mop up the overflowing bad-guy residue. Despite the abundance of rotters, including Tom Wilkinson's Mafia capo, Rutger Hauer's ruthless CEO and Cillian Murphy's smart-parts Scarecrow, the picture remains all about the guy in the cowl, and Nolan is nothing if not self-conscious of his hero's iconography: "As a symbol, I can be incorruptible," Wayne mutters to butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Caine and Morgan Freeman (doing Q-business by supplying assorted bat-gadgetry) fill in required great-actor-doing-blockbuster-slumming space, dabbing in humanity when the director isn't looking.
Humanity, incidentally, is not one of Nolan's interests, pushed to the back seat by the techno-geek cleverness of Memento (a Film of My Generation that I never liked, like The Usual Suspects and Rushmore) and Insomnia. In Batman Begins, the tricks have deserted the director to leave only big-budget machinery tracks, fragmented smears of action scenes, Spider Man-redux romantic tepidness (former-actress-turned-Tom-Cruise-squeeze Katie Holmes plays Wayne's childhood sweetheart, now an idealistic DA getting in the villains' hair). For such a supposedly "dark" incarnation, new Batman is, underneath all that tortured gruffness, clean as a whistle, as befits the latest heir in a dynasty of benevolent billionaires who, God forbid, have absolutely nothing to do with the rampant social injustice polluting Gotham. (Papa Wayne even built a subway for the "less fortunate," and, if the family's moral fiber is still in question, we're told the previous generations helped escaped slaves.) Tim Burton's earlier versions displayed not only the filmmaker's pop-surrealist eye, but also the freaky links between hero and villain, while showing how an individualized talent can swim the blockbuster waters and not drown. Batman Begins, doom and digitalized maggots and all, is no less vanilla than Schumacher's Vegas circuses, though much more pretentious.
Coincidentally, both Christian Bale and another scarecrow also figure in Howl's Moving Castle, one as the voice of the eponymous wizard who sprouts feathery wings, the other a cursed prince tenderly dubbed "Turnip Head" while hopping on its stick -- just two of the enchanted minions peopling the new offering from beloved Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Coming after the impersonal guano of Batman Begins, it's a relief to luxuriate in its fondness for detail and acceptance of the sheer strangeness of life; the movie doesn't break the banks of imagination as often (or as richly) as Miyazaki's previous hit, Spirited Away, though that may be because the original source (the popular 1986 novel by Diana Wynne Jones) offers easier Western frames of reference than the filmmaker's usual beguiling "foreignness." Like Otomo's Steamboy earlier this year, it's a vision of Victorian-era Brittania that nevertheless evokes Ghibli Studio far more than Rowling. Miyazaki's work has an interest in parallel spiritual worlds that Otomo lacks, however, and his young, hat-making heroine, Sophie (voiced, in the English-dubbed version, by Emily Mortimer), quickly comes in contact with the realms of magic via a brush with the Witch of Waste (Lauren Bacall), promptly morphed into a bent 90-year-old.
Old-age Sophie, now voiced marvelously by Jean Simmons, sets out to find handsome wizard Howl, hitching a ride on his castle, a moaning, gassing behemoth of metallic parts on chicken legs, kept together by a magical flame (shticky Billy Crystal) now domesticated into the oven. Deservedly revered all over the world, Miyazaki remains the last of the grand old-school of hand-drawn animators still standing with the advance of the digital pixel, and the storyline offers him plenty of room for both his visual felicities and his thematic eccentricities: wide-eyed heroines wandering into the unknown, shape-shifting heroes, huge flying things (here wing-flapping battleships, raining missiles on towns as part of an ongoing "idiotic war"). Nothing is as nutty here as the big-faced witch or the faceless demon scarffing down servants in Spirited Away (though a race up a flight of palatial stairs between Sophie and the Witch of Waste, who ends up almost melting into a puddle of sweat, comes close), yet Howl's Moving Castle has a purposeful shift -- where the earlier film's narrative took the girl's bludgeoning interests as its shape, here it is structured to house the curiosity of youth and autumnal serenity in the same body. I've only recently started scratching the surface of Japanese animé as an art form, an acquired taste still, but it is works of full wonder and beauty like this one that keep pushing me into acquiring it.
Reviewed June 23, 2005.