Howl's Moving Castle Anime Review
Hauru no Ugoku Shiro
Howl's Moving Castle
US Release By
Fantasy Romantic Adventure
In the land of Ingary in a world not too different from our own lives the young hat-maker Sophie. Her very ordinary life takes a sudden turn into the very unordinary when a curse is placed on her by an evil witch, turning her into an elderly woman and preventing her from telling anyone about her predicament. She sets out wandering, only to run into the dangerous--but dashing--wizard Howl, his young assistant Michael, and his grumpy fire demon Calcifer, all living in Howl's fantastic Moving Castle. As she blusters into his life and the war that threatens to engulf their entire country looms ever nearer, Sophie will seek both a solution to her own problem and perhaps a resolution to the dark secret that Howl's castle hides.
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Howl's Moving Castle is, sadly, not yet another Miyazaki Masterpiece. Much like the Castle of the title, it is a grand spectacle without a foundation, held together by magic alone. Both the movie and the castle are full of interesting people and a sight to behold as they amble by, but in the end neither really seems to be going anywhere. Its biggest strengths are the fabulous visuals and sweet story, but the romance lacks both the bite and some of the depth of meaning that it could have had, and the war that provides the backdrop for the second half feels shallow and poorly connected to the rest of the plot.
In all, it's an enjoyable movie as an imaginative fantasy spectacle, but it lacks the depth and solid story to complete the package. Watch it, enjoy it, but try not to think too hard about it.
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I would love to call Howl's Moving Castle yet another Miyazaki Masterpiece, but sadly this is one of his few films to which that oft-used phrase does not unequivocally apply. It has all the gorgeous animation, fantastic visuals, and imagination you'd expect, but while it's a fun, dazzling movie the plot is a disappointing shadow of both Miyazaki's past works and what it could have been.
Howl's moving castle (the title character's rickety walking home) is an oddly accurate parallel of Howl's Moving Castle (the movie): a grand spectacle without a foundation, held together by magic alone. Both, likewise, are full of interesting people and a sight to behold as they amble by, but in the end neither really seems to be going anywhere.
Aside from the inevitable visual spectacle, the movie's greatest strength is its heroine, Sophie: An industrious, intelligent girl trapped--all too comfortably--in an old woman's body. The juxtaposition of her innocent charm and girlish sense of wonder with her wrinkled old frame is a joy to behold, easily making the first chunk of the movie its best.
The gradual development of her sweet romance with Howl--love from the heart, rather than physical attraction--is the film's centerpiece, but sadly also one of its weaknesses. Howl, who in the original story was a flagrantly womanizing, overdramatic, self-centered jerk, has been reduced to merely aloof and somewhat vain. Sophie is likewise a little too girly and not grumpy enough to keep up her end as his foil, making him seem more the knight in perfumed silk than a worthy adversary.
The resulting relationship is sweet, but there isn't enough antagonism between them to evoke the sort of anti-romance of the novel. Even on a symbolic level the movie fails to establish Howl as having been too superficial to develop lasting relationships, so it doesn't feel as meaningful as it should when he's able to spend enough time with Sophie to form a connection because she isn't attractive physically.
Where Howl's Moving Castle really begins to falter, though, is when it attempts to develop a plot. The war overlaid on the story is an addition from the original novel, and feels like it--ill-explained, somewhat detached from the rest of the plot, and resolved so abruptly as to be almost comical. The shallow nature of the war story is made even more tragic by the fact that the scenes of battle have a brutal realism drawing on WWII-era strafe bombing and other images of wanton destruction, making the fairy tale afterthought of a resolution seem all the more shallow. Miyazaki has never been one to shy away from messy, unresolved conflict--Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke are both centered around it, and even Porco Rosso and Laputa touch on the theme--so there's no excuse for this childish light switch of a war.
That covers all the basics, but since Howl's Moving Castle, like Kiki's Delivery Service, is based on an English-language novel, and the book (an all-ages fantasy yarn of the same title, by Diana Wynne Jones) is a good one, I think it's worth commenting on the movie in comparison to it. I'll also note that I had the same opinion about the film's problem areas before reading the novel--reading the book merely illustrated why the problems are what they are.
This movie adaptation follows the book fairly closely through roughly its first third, with many scenes taken almost verbatim from the original. This is, I don't think coincidentally, where the movie is at its best. The movie, however, begins to deviate with the war story--in the book there is a war brewing with a neighboring kingdom, but it is never actually depicted and doesn't play a major role.
The book did, however, feature the Witch of the Waste as a much stronger villain, and the movie adaptation essentially uses a combination of the war and the Sorceress Pentstemmon to take her place in the plot. This is, I think, why several later sections of the movie (particularly the denouement) don't seem to flow well--the scenes themselves are mostly taken from the book, but they had to be shoehorned into the story that the movie follows, losing a solid sense of fit in the process.
The other thing the movie adaptation lacks relative to the novel is the sense of bite to Sophie and Howl's relationship. Though Calcifer retains all of his belligerent persona, practically the whole point of the romance in the novel is that Howl and Sophie--both thoroughly stubborn folk hiding a significant part of their personalities and an apparent total mismatch of a couple--fall in love almost in spite of themselves. The movie tries to capture some of this, but the romantic aspect gets rather "Miyazaki-ized" into a cute but disappointingly generic love story.
In the end, Miyazaki could have easily stuck much more closely to the novel, and the movie almost certainly would have been the better for it. Almost every area that is changed loses something in the translation, and the movie as a whole ranges from confusing to shallow in the parts that vary the most.
All that said, there is one big thing Howl's Moving Castle has going for it: It is every bit the big-budget, beautiful spectacle that we've come to expect when that old Ghibli magic is at work. From sweeping vistas to dense, old-Europe-style towns, the film is packed with rich visuals and realism, all drawn with exquisite detail. Howl's castle itself is a spectacular sight, a massive, rickety construct of magic and imagination wandering through the most beautiful of scenery. The animation is equally gorgeous, depicting everything from the huge, colorful castle, to dark, brutal scenes of all-too-real warfare, to the precise, better-than-life character animation that makes things as simple as sweeping or cooking a pleasure to watch. It is a visually grand movie made for the big screen, so if you have the opportunity you should enjoy it on one.
The music is another pretty orchestral score by long-time Miyazaki collaborator Jo Hisaishi. The light, flowing main theme fits both the visuals and mood perfectly, and while the more dramatic pieces are somewhat less memorable, the soundtrack is spiced up in a couple of spots by more unusual bits. Most notable is a short, creepy choral piece that provides perfect accompaniment to a semi-abstract magical assault.
As is frequently the case, Miyazaki makes use of atypical voice actors in the Japanese version, in this case casting Chieko Baisho as Sophie and Takuya Kimura as Howl, both well known live-action actors. They handle their roles admirably; Baisho turns in an impressive old-young-woman and although Kimura has something of a smarmy tone, this is entirely appropriate for the character--if anything, he's not quite dislikable enough. My only complaint would be that by casting the same woman as both young and old Sophie, she sounds a little too old and a little too young, respectively. The other main roles--Calcifer, Michael, and the Witch--are voiced by relative unknowns, though all three have appeared in previous Ghibli films. None stand out one way or the other, though I did like Calcifer's voice--just the right combination of whine and belligerence, if not quite as frightening as he probably should have been (and that's not the actor's fault).
Disney's English dub, as with others they've done, is top-notch as well. I'd go so far as to say that Sophie is an improvement; having two different actors in this version makes the age transition more distinctive, yet the voices of the two match well and suit the character perfectly. Christian Bale voices Howl, which probably wasn't the wisest casting choice. Though Bale does a capable job, he sounds a little too old for the 20-ish Howl, and he's not quite smooth enough in a few parts. Billy Kristal is an interesting choice for Calcifer; although it took me a bit to get used to it, he does capture the character quite well, even if his voice is a little too "human" for my taste. The only other significant roles are Michael, who's well cast but a little flat in a couple of scenes, and the Witch of the Waste, who is voiced capably.
In all, I thoroughly enjoyed Howl's Moving Castle as a spectacle movie, and the plot was pleasant enough, but it's one of those movies that seems to get worse the more you think about it. As soon as you're not being dazzled by the gorgeous art and animation, and wowed by the sense of heart and imagination behind it all, you start to realize how rickety the story is and how much better it should have been with all it had going for it. Comparing it to the original novel, I was additionally disappointed, not so much because of the changes, but because the changes almost always take something away from the story, and rarely give anything back in exchange. I may have sounded quite harsh in my appraisal here, but in the end it's still a very enjoyable movie and I do recommend it. It's just not as good as it should have been, and not a movie you want to put too much thought into.
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Any of Ghibli's movies bear some resemblance to this one, though the strongest would be Kiki's Delivery Service (also based on an English-language novel), followed by Porco Rosso and The Cat Returns.
Notes and Trivia
Howl's Movie Castle, as discussed in the review, is based on a novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. There are also two sequels of sorts, Castle in the Air and The House of Many Ways. The former is an amusing coincidence given Miyazaki's Castle in the Air, although her novel is completely unrelated--its plot is more reminiscent of Disney's Aladdin. All three novels, though sometimes identified as children's fiction, are well-written fairy-tale fantasies with a strong sense of down-to-earth realism, making them perfect candidates for Ghibli films.
The release date noted above is the beginning of Japanese wide release in theaters; it premiered a few months earlier at an international film festival. It also saw limited theatrical release in the US.
US DVD Review
The Disney DVD is characteristically impressive--bilingual, anamorphic widescreen, and with all the fixings.
Rated PG for some violence and a few scenes that might scare small children.
Violence: 2 - Most of the violence is in several brutal, though not graphic, scenes of bombing and similar large-scale combat.
Nudity: 0 - Nothing at all.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Gentle romance, nothing more.
Language: 1 - Clean.