Based on the book of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of a young woman, Sophie, who unwittingly gets tangled up in a war after crossing paths with the great wizard Howl. This chance meeting causes her to get turned into an old woman by a witch who wants to extract revenge on the wizard. The low self esteemed Sophie spends the rest of the film discovering herself in her new form, all while navigating the fantastic world of wizards, witches, and curses. Thematically, however, the Ghibli version is very different from that of the novel, as Miyazaki wanted to make a film that showed his displeasure for the United States’ invasion of Iraq. As such, the conflict and its consequences take center stage here. While the war may be the backdrop in which our story takes place, it doesn’t detract from the main idea of finding a way to love yourself and others.
Howls’ Moving Castle was the first film that Miyazaki wrote and directed after 2001’s seminal Spirited Away, and the vibrant sense of wonder on display there comes over into this film in spades. The castle itself is a work of art, watching it lumber through the Wastes is awe inspiring. The castle’s magic portal door remains on of my favorite elements in any Ghibli film to this day. The design on the witches henchmen is a wonderful combination of the Kasuga-Sama from Spirited Away and masked Mardi Gras goers.
Speaking of characters, the eclectic cast show why this story was such a perfect fit for Studio Ghibli to work on. We meet everything from a fast talking fire demon, to a turnip-headed scarecrow, to a young magician’s apprentice who disguises himself as an old man. Looking at the variety of unique characters on display, one could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking think that this was an original Miyazaki creation. His fingerprints though, especially in his love of aviation, are all over Howl. The steampunkesque flying warships in particular impressively show off the level of imagination that he has become famous for, moving through the air straddling a line between menace and beauty.
Howl’s Moving Castle continues the Ghibli story telling tradition of letting the viewer simply exist in the worldof the story, rather than quickly moving from plot beat to plot beat. This can lead to more than one segment that drags on a bit too long, but at this point it is to be expected from a Miyazaki film, so you know what you’re getting. The film also suffers from no real clear antagonist, at first one thinks it’s the Witch of the Waste, she is later shown to just be a symbol for Howl and his insecurities; the war is the real enemy in this film. Speaking of Howl and his insecurities, his characterization is a bit all over the place, one minute he is a suave super wizard, the next a whining teenage boy with no real reason for this given until after he throws his first tantrum. Sophie’s characterization is much stronger, as she has a clear path of acceptance of her new, cursed self, and coming to terms with her own inner beauty and strength.
It is worth noting the English voice cast in this instance, as it does a particularly good job. While most of the Ghibli films get A-list actors to do voiceover work, Howl stands as one of their better group efforts. Billy Crystal in particular shines as the fire demon Calcifer, who is perfectly suited for the quick wit of the character. Christian Bale also does a fine job as the titular protagonist, even using his patented Batman voice in one scene.
Howl’s Moving Castle is by no means a perfect film. And my view of it may be colored a bit by just how fantastic the world it takes place in is. But if you can get past some of the slower, more awkward scenes, Howl’s Moving Castle provides everything else you would expect from a top tier Ghibli film and you will come out of it thinking that a lot of it was just really freaking cool.