Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle


Watched via theater/DVD/BD



PLOT: Howl’s Moving Castle is loosely based off of the novel, by the same name, written by popular young adult writer Diana Wynne Jones. Having read the book prior to watching the movie, I see this Studio Ghibli film as an utter train wreck. The original story was already a bit confusing, but Miyazaki’s grandiose style does more to befuddle rather than to clarify the plot. Many movie adaptations seek to simplify to be conservative with time, but Howl’s Moving Castle stretches out an already complex plot into a ton of fragmented sub-plots, all more confusing and sketchy than the last.

Speaking as an artist, it’s better to put one or two good ideas into a piece of work, rather than trying to throw in everything all at once. Howl’s Moving Castle suffers from being branded. Since it’s a Miyazaki film it “has” to have commentary on war, nature, pollution, etc. All these extraneous details drag out the plot while the true story is buried beneath.

The film starts off with Sophie working at a hat store. While walking one day, she gets harassed by some men, then saved by a mysterious beautiful man. Which happens to be enough to ensure the wrath of the Witch of the Waste, who turns Sophie into an old women out of jealousy. For such an important plot device, you’d think we’d get some context, but the convictions and motivations of all the characters are just ignored to delve into other topics.

From there on out Sophie embraces the liberty she has gained as an old biddy and goes on an adventurous journey on foot, which doesn’t last for long because she’s old. She hops on board a magical walking castle and ends up employed by the same man who saved her before, the magician Howl. While under his employ she strikes up a bargain with his fire to liberate him from slavery in return for her spell being broken.

Along the way we see Howl and his assistant do some magical stuff, and Howl is begged to do some war stuff. He turns into a bird and flies around and gets hurt, but we don’t really get a clear explanation for any of it. The Witch of the Waste turns into a joke of a side kick and Howl saves the world. I think. The spells are broken, and everyone lives happily ever after. But wait, what about that war thing? And if the Witch of the Waste was so jealous before, that she was willing to ruin someone else’s life, why’s she just disappear without a fight? We’re just supposed to accept this ending because it fits into the right amount of time for a film.

My roommate and I have discovered that every Miyazaki movie is about war, the environment, or both. She used to be surprised by the recurring themes, but now she’s just resigned to them.

PLOT: Sophie’s a hatter who’s tired of her responsible life. Her older sister’s the pretty one, and she works at a hat shop where everyone’s too busy to pay much attention to her. One day, on her way to visit her sister, she’s saved from creepy thugs by a strange man who can fly. Also immediately following that, she’s tracked down by the Witch of the Waste, who wants Howl the magician for her own and thus curses Sophie to become an old woman.

Instead of moping too much, Sophie takes this change in stride and leaves, walking until she encounters a strange moving castle and demands to be let in from the weather. She decides she’d best be used as a cleaning woman there, making a place for herself. Little does she know that the castle belongs to Howl, the man who flew with her, and she’s about to get tangled up in his past demons.

This is a good start to the movie, and Sophie and Howl are instantly likable, but then too many plot threads get thrown in. There’s the Witch of the Waste, who’s chasing after Howl, but Howl’s also running from two countries who are at war and both want him to fight for them. Howl is both a coward and a pacifist, so he ends up fighting despite himself, which leads to some drastic consequences for him. Then there’s the mystery of the spell that’s on Calcifer, who’s the fire demon that powers Howl’s castle. All of these plots come rushing at one another, alongside the romance between Sophie and Howl, and the film gets pretty thematically confused because of it.

Mind you, this is still a fun, completely watchable movie, but it’s not Hayao Miyazaki’s strongest by far. The themes of war and environmentalism seem forced in, and I have a hard time keeping straight what’s going on with the Witch of the Waste and the other side characters. Like Spirited Away, there are a lot of quirky characters who get thrown in without much explanation, and it took me several rewatches to feel connected to them. On the other hand, the film’s never boring because there’s so much going on, but I wish it had been streamlined so the most important narratives about Howl and Sophie had more room to breathe. It’s not like Miyazaki really had to make another film about war, after all. He’s got Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, which say everything I think should be said on the subject.

SETTING: What makes Howl’s Moving Castle so magical is the play on setting, in particular Howl’s castle which has an enchanted door which opens to various houses in other towns. Howl, or I should say his assistant, serves these neighborhoods as their local wizard making remedies for common maladies. Meanwhile the true structure of the castle roams the wastelands, which is where Sophie happens upon the building. In true Ghibli fashion, the castle is beautiful and mysterious with fancy gadgets and doohickeys everywhere.

While the castle is well fleshed out, everything else is just a fancy blur of gorgeous places, such as the castle where Howl is summoned to… aid in battle for two warring nations. Which he does, as a bird form, in some abstracted somewhere. Then there are flashbacks, which explain nothing, but are truly magnificent to look at. As Crystal says, none of it makes sense, but gives you just enough information to want more.

SETTING: Howl’s Moving Castle excels at establishing a wide-ranging, intriguing setting. The first shots of the film resemble European cities during World War I, but once Sophie leaves town the film has a chance to explore other settings. The wastes, where Sophie encounters the castle, are breathtakingly detailed and gorgeous despite being barren, and the castle’s entrancing to watch. The castle moves in complex and unexpected ways, making it a delight to watch and see Sophie explore.

The other settings of the film include the two countries Howl visits, the war, Howl’s bedroom, and Howl’s memories. The countries and war are about as you’d expect from a Miyazaki movie, while Howl’s bedroom is stuffed with trinkets and oddities that sparkle. Finally, Howl’s memories are a strange place that’s both frightening and serene. It’s my favorite place of the film, and I wish we’d been able to see more of it in a way that made more linear sense.

I wish the setting had been simplified down rather than expanded upon. The world of Howl is exciting and intriguing, but there is so much that is still left unanswered that you feel disconnected from it all.

CHARACTERS: Despite everything I’ve said up until this point, I do feel that Miyazaki improved upon the characters from the original story. I’ve read several of Diana Wynne Jone’s books, and I never really felt a connection with any of her characters. Even when I was reading Howl’s Moving Castle, I still felt removed from Sophie. Which is a shame because I really admired her as a strong and independent female character. Studio Ghibli takes the unique and wonderful characters from the original story and makes them charismatic and full of energy, perfect for a playful family movie.</span.

Sophie is transformed into a main character worthy of a major motion picture. Her old age only adds to her independence, spunk, and stubbornness. I loved watching how she embraces her spell to finally live her life to its fullest potential as an old woman. Rather than glorifying youth, Howl’s Moving Castle shows how liberating old age can be and the benefits that can come with it.

Howl on the other hand acts like a spoiled rotten child. He lazes about all day and throws tantrums. While his character was redeemed in the novel, I felt there was too little time devoted to his history in the movie to really make me empathize with him. Sure I feel bad that he is drawn into battle, and his morals are threatened, but I still didn’t have enough to go on to care.

I really enjoyed the secondary characters, such as Calcifer, the fire, who is witty and sharp. Howl’s assistant Markl is adorable and helps to round out the other characters of the castle. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is metaphorically thrown under the bus in order to work with the convoluted new plot.

I really appreciate the attention Miyazaki gives to old age in this film. He already paid attention to middle age in Porco Rosso, so it’s nice that he brings it full circle by having another protagonist deal with suddenly being old.

CHARACTERS: Considering my complaints about the plot, the characters are what make this film worthwhile to me. Sophie’s incredibly entertaining to watch as she transitions into an old woman and comes to find her place in Howl’s castle. She has a wickedly sharp tongue, but she’s also sweet and considerate of those around her. I love watching her stubbornness rise to the surface, and seeing how she finds a way to save everyone will always make me cheer. She’s the kind of Everywoman heroine that makes you want to take her side and see her dreams come true.

Howl, on the other hand, is a whiny playboy who’s charismatic and terribly entertaining. He has that mix of power and ridiculousness that I find so fun to watch, and he’s easily my favorite part of the movie. I could watch him (and Christian Bale’s voice) do just about anything…. I also enjoy the level of character development he undergoes, which just strengthens my love for him.

The side characters are more of a mixed bag. I love, love, love Calcifer, and not just because he’s voiced by Billy Crystal, and Markl (Josh Hutcherson!) also makes me happy. The treatment of Witch of the Waste, though, always bothers me with its implications about women’s weight, appearances, and major concerns. I wish Miyazaki would focus on other matters, like updating his philosophy on feminism instead of just reminding us that war is bad. He has some strong female characters, but others suffer in predictable ways.

I was very unsatisfied with the treatment of the Witch of the Waste. Rather than being clever and powerful, she’s gluttonous and slow. She then becomes redeemed, but only be being so old she can’t do anything.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Nothing could bring Howl’s Moving Castle to life more than Studio Ghibli’s fine touch. The animation style works perfectly with the magical wonder and fantasy of the story. Miyazaki’s rendition of Howl is flawless. His delicate features and constantly changing appearance work well in conjunction with his whimsical and fickle personality.

Then there is of course Sophie, who is rendered as the most adorable old lady. As we all know by now, Miyazaki knows how to make the most charming elderly characters. For the most part, every character is dealt with the utmost respect, and every detail of their costume and design is carefully considered.

Not only are the characters beautifully rendered and flawless, but the backgrounds and animation as well. It’s easy to get caught up in the colorful wonder of Howl’s Moving Castle and forget that the plot is a total crazy mess.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: This film is just gorgeous in the way that only a Ghibli movie can be. It pays close attention to details of the setting which draw the viewer in, like the style of technology available or the signs on buildings in town. To me, Howl’s Moving Castle visually stands out most for its bright, lush colors that bring the world to life and make it so vibrant and exciting. The color palette could come from the time period when the film came out, or it could be a result of digital technology used in making it. Either way, it’s a brighter movie than most of Miyazaki’s films.

The character designs are also great, and this time the characters look substantially different from other Miyazaki characters so that it no longer feels like you’re watching the same people in slightly different roles. Additionally, Miyazaki does an excellent job of aging Sophie realistically. I hate anime where people are old because they have three wrinkles—Sophie’s entire body and face change, and it’s a very well crafted transition in her character. Bits like that are part of why I respect Miyazaki so much as a director.

OVERALL: Howl’s Moving Castle is definitely not one of the best works by Studio Ghibli. The original plot is completely butchered, and the remains of what’s left is a blur of beautifully animated moments, that when pieced back together end up as a half attempt at a charming love story. Luckily that part is done well enough, and the characters are charming enough that you can still have an incredibly good time watching everyone do their magical thing while Sophie falls in love.

If you’re a fan of the original story, you may not be so impressed with this rendition. Furthermore, if you’re new to the story, don’t expect to get a whole lot out of the plot. What really redeems this story is the characters and humor. The English dub is done fantastically, and is very approachable to American fans, and works excellently as a family film. Just don’t expect anything deep or thought provoking.

OVERALL: Though this is not my favorite Miyazaki movie by far, I still find it incredibly enjoyable to watch. Howl’s Moving Castle has some of my favorite characters, and even though the plot suffers, it’s still worth visiting because of Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, and Markl. Furthermore, it’s visually stunning, and the humor’s more spot-on than in any other Miyazaki movie. If you only want to watch Miyazaki’s thematic masterpieces, then this film won’t impress you much with its muddled plot and excess of themes. There’s just too much going on, and the themes aren’t resolved in a satisfying way for me. However, if you’re into characters and setting, there’s a lot to enjoy here, so give it a watch.


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