Grandpa Carl’s Flying House: Up and Howl’s Moving Castle

The question is always whether Pixar and the film’s designated director can make the journey worthwhile.

Grandpa Carl’s Flying House: Up and Howl’s Moving Castle
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

If you read interviews or Wikipedia pages regarding director Pete Docter’s inspirations for Up, you’ll find an emphasis on lovable, grumpy actors, childhood fantasies, and real-life grandfather figures. I have no doubt that these all helped shape Docter’s vision for Pixar’s latest film, but I feel a particularly strong influence has been relegated to a footnote or an afterthought. Pixar garners comparisons to director Hayao Miyazaki with every new film, and I notice that the Japanese filmmaker’s influence on Pixar’s staff is perceived in the same way as Martin Scorsese’s influence on an entire generation of directors: “How could he not have influenced them?” Yet, Up presents a special case, as the entire film can be seen as an homage not only to Miyazaki’s work, but specifically to Howl’s Moving Castle, the 2004 film for which Pete Docter directed the English voice talent.

Many similarities between the two stick out to anyone with a pair of eyes. Each film features a spectacular traveling domicile that houses an old, old, protagonist. Beyond the protagonist, Up’s principal characters and their designs mirror Howl’s Moving Castle. Docter’s Russell the Eagle Scout resembles the magical disguise of Miyazaki’s Markl the boy wizard; the exotic bird Kevin takes her cues from the hopping scarecrow, Turnip; Dug the talking dog can easily be linked to Calcifer the fire demon, the nearly catatonic but strangely adorable Witch of the Waste, or, of course, the rasping dog that follows her.

Both films contain similar themes—such as the sudden loss of youth or the formation and importance of surrogate families—and they even share specific moments. When Sophie of Howl’s Moving Castle comes to the realization that she’s been transformed into an old woman, she peers into a three-way mirror and paws at her face, her skin dragging, pulling, and sticking to her fingers and her giant rubbery nose bouncing. Docter pays homage to this moment in Up when a tired, aged Carl sits up in bed and runs his blocky hands over his face, coming up with the same results as Sophie. It’s not the moment that Carl realizes how old he’s become, but it certainly is the moment that the audience realizes it. Graying a character’s hair and giving him some wrinkles and a cane only go so far. A quiet, perceptive moment like this really drives the point home. The moment is startling.

Slightly more interesting and coincidental is the perception of each film’s creator at these specific points in their careers. Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli preceded Howl’s Moving Castle with 2001’s Academy Award-winning Spirited Away. The director had long established himself, but after the success and recognition of Spirited Away, it seemed like he could make his next film about anything he wanted and still get away with it. So he made a film about a big, traveling castle and a slow, 90 year old woman—at first glance, not the most immediately engaging protagonist for a “children’s movie.”

Pixar, a juggernaut every summer, doesn’t need to prove itself, earning nearly universal praise with just about every film. But every couple of years, one of those films hits harder than usual, as did last year’s WALL-E, a movie that, for many critics and filmgoers, went beyond “Best Animated Film” and competed for a “Best Picture” spot. Like Miyazaki, Pixar could get away with just about anything after WALL-E, so what did they do? They took the same risk as Studio Ghibli and released a film about a creaky old man and his big, flying house.

At the time of Howl’s release, Docter noted that a film like Miyazaki’s would have difficulty getting made at a place like Pixar thanks to their “communal” approval process. I get the feeling that Docter finally summoned the courage to pursue such a project after spending so much intimate time with Howl’s Moving Castle, and probably pointed back to that film in his pitch as a proof-of-concept. Ultimately, Miyazaki’s goals do differ from Pixar’s, and while it may be slightly unfair to compare two different genres of film, I can’t help but notice the difference in imagination between Up and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen more Pixar films than Miyazaki ones, but movies like Up are sadly predictable and offer few surprises. Let’s face it. We know that friends will be made, a few lessons will be learned and all the good people will make it to the end happily. That’s a given. The question is always whether Pixar and the film’s designated director can make the journey worthwhile. On the other hand, even watching Howl’s Moving Castle for the second and third times, I constantly found myself surprised and amazed by the wildly unpredictable places the film managed to take me while still feeling like a singular, focused vision.

I realize that’s much easier to do when you’re working on a fantasy film than when you’re stuck in the realm of the American definition of a “kids’ movie.” I’m tempted to believe that, despite the recent success of live action fantasy films, young filmgoers in the U.S. have been conditioned to accept only the films that exist in this “safe” realm, so therefore, Pixar has chosen to box itself in there as well. Before scoffing, realize that, to the majority of audiences in this country, an animated film by default equals a child’s film.

The thought of your yearly summer blockbuster kids’ movie featuring witches and demons—let alone good witches and demons—seems so rare and so far in the past. Parents and kids of this culture feel much safer with their benevolent grandpas and their round-eyed talking rats, robots, and toys. Even then, I have a friend who never gave Ratatouille a chance because she couldn’t buy the concept of a rat controlling a human’s movements through his hair. Heck, Docter had to make up some technologically-centered excuse just to be able to have talking dogs in Up. (I’m willing to bet Miyazaki would’ve just let the freaking dogs talk.) Not every parent and child is that unwilling to expand their imaginations, but when you’re looking for box office success, you play to the crowd.

Compare the moving castle and Carl’s floating house. One is a scrap heap marvel of modern mechanical magic, a gigantic bagpipe fueled by fire. When the castle emerges from the mist during the film’s opening moments, a nearby shepherd can be seen pumping his staff in the air, cheering on the enormous machine. To the inhabitants of the film, Howl’s castle is a point of pride. Contrast that with Up’s imagery: a home representative of years past floating through the air by the aid of countless colorful balloons. When the balloons are set free from their enclosing tarp, it’s with romantic flourish. The streets are interrupted by the house’s perfect silhouette and the translucent shadows of each boldly colored balloon. As the balloons pass by a little girl’s bedroom, the walls, floor, and ceiling are bathed in an array of dancing tints. When spectators catch a glimpse of Carl’s flying house, they’re filled with awe.

Both depictions seem decidedly Japanese and American, respectively. In this way, Up differs from Howl’s Moving Castle, yet still mimics it. While Miyazaki’s film takes place in the very British world of its original novel, the director’s influence and style still create the distinct Japanese atmosphere that many associate with anime. The film explores themes like the conflict between pacifism and war and the uses of technology. Then consider Up (or Pixar’s work in general), which, in it’s attempt to harness the nostalgia of Old Hollywood, gathers a flurry of unabashedly American ideals—from the romanticism of the floating house to Russell’s Eagle Scouts—and wraps them all up with a good old fashioned pioneer spirit (or, “The Spirit of Adventure,” as the blimp is named).

So while the spirits of the two films are dissimilar, they both make the same choice to pursue their culture’s sentiments. In all this, it’s good to see Docter showing respect for a master of modern animation. Too many critics and viewers are willing to prematurely praise any Pixar effort because, well, they’re the best in their niche (the same can be said of Miyazaki). Paying such public homage to Miyazaki shows me that the directors and storytellers at Pixar aren’t complacent enough to ignore their influences. That little bit of humbleness from the Pixar giant goes a long way.

Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Jonathan Pacheco

Jonathan Pacheco is a recovering cinephile and t-shirt junkie with a terrible addiction to front-end web development.

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