-Watched English-Dubbed Version-
Witches, wizards, magic, and wondrous happenings. Hayao Miyazaki has done it again. It took me a couple of viewings to really grasp the wonderful themes of Howl’s Moving Castle, based on a book for children by Diana Wynne Jones. I fancied it ‘confusing’ and ‘convoluted,’ and was all set to write a skeptical review when I saw it again, open-minded and unpreoccupied. It was like a whole different experience. So if you’ve seen this movie and found it slightly underwhelming or overhyped, I urge you to watch it again. It’s a bit more complex than Miyazaki’s other movies. But that’s not in of itself a bad thing.
The heart of Howl’s Moving Castle lies in the character of Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer,) a shy young woman who works at a hat shop. Sophie starts out as a timid, self-effacing Mary Sue, but when the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) transforms her into an elderly woman Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) must grow some cajones and learn to look after herself; with a little help from a brooding and magnificently eccentric wizard named Howl (Christian Bale.) The Witch of the Waste resents Howl because he spurned her affections as a fickle young sorcerer, and a witch who holds high position in political power (Blythe Danner) wants to recruit him to use his abilities in a long, bloody civil war.
But Howl’s real concern lies in self interest; namely, recovering his heart, which was stolen from him as a boy. Can Sophie help Howl, even trapped in her hunched, geriatric form? Along their adventures, Howl and Sophie meet many interesting characters, including an animate scarecrow with the head of a turnip, The Witch of the Waste’s malevolent, amorphous henchmen, and a deeply odd but adorable little dog who makes a sound vaguely akin to a asthmatic rodent. Not least of all, the viewer is introduced to Howl’s titular ‘moving castle,’ which, like The Overlook in The Shining, really stands as a character in it’s own right.
The castle, a massive Hodge-podge of gears and piles of scrap metal, is kept fully functional by Calcifer (Billy Crystal,) a wise-cracking fire demon, and between Calcifer, Sophie, Howl, and the boy apprentice of magic, Markl (Josh Hutcherson), they make sort of an odd little family. It’s going to take loyalty, friendship, magic, and faith in each others abilities to survive this crazy war and Howl’s equally crazy personal demons. Howl’s Moving Castle is set in a colorful steampunk world which resembles early 20th-Century Britain, but includes creatures and spells the likes of which no person of our world has ever encountered. If you know Miyazaki, you know that every film of his is an intensely visual experience, and besides Billy Crystal (who’s not as funny as he thinks he is,) all the English dub actors are fine in their respective roles.
Sophie, like Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier effort Spirited Away, grows incredibly as a character throughout the film, but rather than developing from entitlement to self-possession and maturity, she becomes much more assertive and builds her self-esteem exponentially. Sophie is a good role model for young girls, because although she starts out very Mary Sue-ish and ineffectual, she gradually becomes a more powerful character and is certainly not the average damsel in distress. While Sophie develops as a person throughout, Howl stays much the same, existing as both a powerful wizard and an incurable dandy, throwing a temper tantrum when Sophie mixed up his hair dyes and made him tint his hair the wrong color.
The characters in this are quite magical, so it would be a shame for anyone with a taste for the colorful and imaginative to miss it. Although I like Spirited Away marginally better, and admire My Neighbor Totoro for it’s boisterous innocence, Howl’s Moving Castle comes as a close third, and should be viewed even by people without the most rudimentary understanding or experience with anime.