Howl’s Moving Castle: When Colors Shift and Magic Happens

Copyright © 2004 by Studio Ghibli
Copyright © 2004 by Studio Ghibli

Welcome back to another round of me playing catch-up on some Hayao Miyazaki classics. Here’s my take on one I’ve heard acclaimed and adored for years on end: Howl’s Moving Castle, or “How I Love to Stop Worrying and Love the Transformations.”

Our story begins when a young hatmaker named Sophie makes the acquaintance of two powerful spellcasters on the same day: the enigmatic Howl and the devious Witch of the Waste. When the Witch curses her to become a 90-year-old woman, Sophie plucks up her courage and seeks a cure, which leads her back to Howl, whose castle is in disrepair. As she becomes his new cleaning lady, Sophie learns more about the world of magic through servants Markl and Calcifer. She even gets to see a different side to the Witch, her supposed antagonist, and into the politics of two countries on the brink of war, as fueled by other magical beings.

Our very first image is spot on, depicting Howl’s moving castle in all its wacky detail. And several shots of older-model planes, because Miyazaki is nothing if not an aerophile. The animation of Miyazaki’s movies is always fluid and lighthearted, and this one certainly has the same balance of wacky spirits (as in Spirited Away) and real-life detailing (as in Porco Rosso). I’d talk more about the animation, but this is a Miyazaki film and there’s a bar of quality that’s to be expected here.

Sophie is established as a bit of an introvert, more interested in making hats than in going out with the other girls at the shop. Like most Miyazaki heroines, she’s plucky when confronted with her strange circumstances, adapting to both old age and Howl’s magical way of life. As she herself puts it, “Oh, yes, I’m the worst kind of witch ever, the kind that cleans!” It sums up pretty well the kind of work she does and the courage she shows in overcoming every little obstacle thrown her way.

As for the rest of the cast, they’re pretty colorful and dynamic, too. Billy Crystal is pretty funny as Calcifer the fire spirit, adding some color and rapidfire dialogue much like Phil Hartmann did in Kiki’s Delivery Service. Markl (voiced by Josh Hutcherson) is a good example of how to make a kid sidekick who’s not annoying. I was blown away to learn that Lauren Bacall was herself the voice of the Witch of the Waste. And Howl himself is quite enigmatic, ranging from gentle and powerful to manic and surreal. But given he’s a wizard (voiced by Christian Bale, of all people), that’s to be expected.

With not so much to discuss in animation, I guess I’ll say this much about thematic content. The movie does a fine job at portraying the rigors and strengths of old age (a rather progressive move in our global youth-centric entertainment). We see all the aches and pains that Sophie now has to deal with in her transformed state, and yet, it does nothing to dull her spirit or her compassion for others. The elderly are humanized in this movie, from Sophie’s loving-kindness to the witch’s selfishness. And they have as much agency as any young person in cinema would.

Another good theme scattered through the movie, and exemplified by its animation, is the horror of war. Howl and his entanglement with the bombing runs against both sides of a brewing conflict form the crux of the real plot (or at least the plot in Act 3). We also see a healthy contrast between the domestic, familial atmosphere that Sophie brings to Howl’s castle and the ruthless bombers flying overhead, as arranged by Suliman and the King’s military.

While the ending struck me as a little anticlimactic, it wasn’t terrible. I think the trick is that you have to look at many of Miyazaki’s movies as modern-day fairy tales. Especially in more fantastic films like Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away. The style and the emotion overtakes the strict dramatic arc that other movies would require, but the end result of our heroes standing and smiling together as one journey ends and another begins is always guaranteed.

The English dub of Howl’s Moving Castle is available through Disney Movies.

Bibliography: Howl’s Moving Castle (film). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toshio Suzuki. Written by Hayao Miyazaki. Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones. Perf. Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Josh Hutcherson, Blythe Danner, Jena Malone, and Crispin Freeman. Studio Ghibli. Toho (Japanese distributor); Buena Vista (US distributor). Original release date: September 5, 2004.

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