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Anime Info

Creator: Hayao Miyazaki from a novel by Diane Wynne Jones
Genre: Fantasy
Length: Movie (2:00)
Purchase: Here

A studio Ghibli production released in the United States by Buena Vista

Summary

+ Gorgeous animation
– The characters are underdeveloped and boring
– The plot is thin and serves mostly as a skeleton for beautiful visuals
+/– Movie seems short compared to other Miyazaki films
+/– The movie will be all too familiar to Hayao Miyazaki fans

Overview

Howl's Moving Castle is not a terrible movie but Hayao Miyazaki is capable of much better. Howl's Moving Castle is beautiful to look at but lacking the strong characters and plots of his other masterpieces such as Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. Miyazaki's pacifist philosophy and ecological concerns are important themes that he has expressed better in other films most notably Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds.

Public Rating

Our Rating

Score of 3.5 out of 5
3.5 out of 5

Howl's Moving Castle Review

Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 11/3/2006

Introduction

After completing Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki swore he'd never direct another film, however that film was soon followed by the Alice In Wonderland-esque film Spirited Away and in 2004 he reversed himself again when he took up the reins of studio Ghibli's adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle after another director left the project. Based on the novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle tells the story of Sophie, a girl transformed by a witch's curse into an old woman. Seeking to rid herself of the curse, Sophie, joins the household of the mysterious wizard Howl. Upon meeting Calcifer, the demon who powers the titular moving castle, she agrees to help him break his contract with Howl and he promises to lift her curse. When Howl and Sophie encounter one another, Howl sees past her curse and they fall in love as Sophie aids Howl in his confrontation with a former mentor.

Review

Howl's Moving Castle is a familiar yet charming fantasy filled with the many delightful touches that we have come to expect from anime films directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Although Miyazaki has covered similar territory before, Miyazaki is such a strong anime director that the film is better than it has any right to be. The film opens with an iconic shot similar to Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky as the enormous machine referred to as Howl's Castle emerges from the mist. The film's heroine, Sophie, is introduced as the scene shifts to a village hat shop where the heroine is employed as a hat maker. Through a combination of clever dialog and animation the central character is established as a clever girl who lacks confidence and the wizard Howl's reputation as seductive cad is clearly developed.

As Sophie travels through the city, we catch glimpses of her hometown. Although it looks loosely like a 19th century city, it is not the 19th century as it was but more as we would like it to have been. Much like Steamboy's England, Sophie's society seems built on marvelous steam powered technology. Unlike, Steamboy, Howl's Moving Castle is not science fiction but rather high fantasy which incorporates some technology. While searching for a shop, Sophie is accosted by off-duty soldiers. Before things become too serious, a handsome rogue comes to her aid. Using magic, the rogue, who may be in fact the infamous Howl in disguise, causes the soldiers to leave Sophie alone and march off. Sophie and the Wizard are pursued by shadowy beings that seem to seep up through the cracks between cobblestones. In a scene similar to Superman's first encounter with Lois Lane in Superman: The Movie, the handsome wizard gently flies himself and Sophie over the rooftops of the city and to the safety of the tavern where Sophie's sister is employed. Flight is one of Miyazaki's favorite visual motifs and no one animates it better. When Howl and Sophie glide over the city we sense not only the pure joy of weightlessness but also feeling that it is two real people flying - there is a realism to the scene that is often missing from even the most sophisticated flight effects in live action movies. It is was more like watching the artful wire work of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than the more pedestrian CGI augmented effects of Superman Returns.

Show More When Sophie returns to her shop, she encounters the mysterious Witch of the Waste. For reasons not immediately explained, the Witch of the Waste curses Sophie and Sophie transforms into an old, one might say, ancient woman. What could have been a stunning transformation is instead a revisitation of familiar visual territory. The old Sophie looks almost exactly like the old women who run the bathhouse in Spirited Away and the Pirate Queen from Castle in the Sky. Unable to face her friends and family, Sophie departs the city and makes her way to the wilderness. As in many other Miyazaki films Sophie encounters a myriad of fantastical creatures. The first of these she encounters is a helpful animated scarecrow although unlike Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz we are not immediately certain that this turnip headed fellow is a sentient being. However, when Sophie wishes for a house or lodge to stay in, the scarecrow brings Howl's Moving Castle to her. Seen up close it is a steamed powered monstrosity. Once inside it, Sophie encounters Calcifer, a pitiful fire demon obligated by a contract to power the castle. In a charming scene, Calcifer and Sophie arrange to help each other. He'll break her curse if Sophie will break his contract with Howl. Sophie falls asleep and when she awakens, she is in a home in a seaside port. We realize that Howl's Castle functions of some sort of gateway between distant cities. War is afoot and all wizards and witches are commanded to join the war effort. Acting out the part of an old woman, Sophie becomes a house keeper in Howl's household. Howl's other retainer seems to be a small boy named Markl. Howl isn't nearly the cad that Sophie has been led to believe. He is charming and gracious, even helping Sophie fix breakfast.

Howl's home, like many bachelor homes is dirty beyond belief and Sophie takes to cleaning with reckless abandon. In one amusing scene she nearly kills Calcifer when she takes too long cleaning ashes out of the fireplace. Daily life in the castle is explored in a beautifully rendered scene as the steam powered contraption moves out of the city across a nearly photo realistic rendition of a beautiful mountain landscape. Howl's Castle is as intricately designed as any setting in any of Miyazaki's films. It nearly comes to life as another character in the film. As in all of Miyazaki's films, Howl's Moving Castle revels in the beauty of nature. Taking a break from their chores, Marker and Sophie dry their laundry and picnic by a crystalline lake as Sophie contemplates the wonders of the mountains.

Show More
Meanwhile, Howl flies over a war torn landscape as blasted and ugly as the mountains are beautiful. As in Miyazaki's other films such as Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle carries a strong anti-war message. Howl is a reluctant warrior in a terrible war that combines steam powered war machines and magical power. When Howl returns home, he discuses the battle with Calcifer - describing fellow magic users whose use of magic has permanently transformed them into hideous creatures beyond regret. A self described coward, Howl is vain and petty. Yet in a reverse of the classic beauty and the beast story he can see beyond Sophie's curse and falls in love with who she really is. Holding personal freedom as his highest ideal, Howl is desperate to escape military service but is held in thrall to a contract with the King. Further, Howl's former mentor the sorcereress Saliman is now the King's personal adviser. She has threatened to take Howl's power if he does not comply with the King's order. Witch in the Waste is held as an example what can happen to those who defy Saliman. A corpulent, fleshy being, when she looses her power she reverts to her true age and becomes a blobby, wormlike creature. A similar fate awaits Howl.

Although it is a charming, and beautifully animated film, Howl's Moving Castle is the least satisfying of Hayao Miyazaki's feature films. The plot, such as it is, is unsubstantial. The war is treated abstractly rather than a threat to life and limb. We see countless warships and fighter planes but never see much death or suffering. The weakest aspect to the film is the characters. They function mainly as mouthpieces for Miyazaki's pacifist philosophy. Howl is beautiful, the animated equivalent to Orlando Bloom but he lacks the brooding intensity that one would expect from a wizard under a curse. Sophie lacks either the cleverness of Pazu from Castle in the Sky or the passion of San from Princess Mononoke. Saliman exists merely to serve the plot; she lacks even a trace of the empathy of Lady Eboshi or the cunning of the villainous princess from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. The other characters serve mainly as window dressing, Witch of the Waste instigates the plot by cursing Sophie but after that is reduced to being merely pathetic not even as interesting as Gollum from Lord of the Rings. And Turnip Head the Scarecrow is cute but doesn't have anything to do with the story until the final frame. And the little boy Markl provides boring exposition but little else. And as a setting, Howl's Moving Castle is a visual achievement but the huge inn from Spirited Away is more interesting and inhabited by more interesting and better developed creatures.

Conclusion

Even geniuses sometimes produce duds. After all Leonard da Vinci not only created Mona Lisa but also Lady with a Ferret. Howl's Moving Castle is not a terrible movie. It would be an achievement coming from any other director but it is from Hayao Miyazaki and that makes it all the more disappointing. Like Miyazaki's other films it is filled with beautiful, fluid animation, and amazing visuals. It is weakened by an unsubstantial plot and underdeveloped characters.

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