Hayao Miyazaki’s fantasy adventure takes flight but never quite stays airborne throughout.
“A heart is a heavy burden.”
I first watched Howl’s Moving Castle about eight or nine years ago, during a big anime movie binge and though I remembered little of what actually went down, I was left with one impression: I didn’t understand the hype behind this movie. I remember being lost, not liking the titular character, and generally thinking that there were far better Ghibli films out there. So it’s only fair that I revisit this, with a different lens, and check out what everyone’s been talking about.
For the three people in the world not in the know, Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones, is about Sophie, a hatter who finds herself on the wrong side of an evil hag, the Witch of the Wastes, after an completely accidental encounter with the titular Howl, a wizard and an anime stud whose good looks are the subject of GIFs everywhere. Sophie is turned into an old lady, and so decides to go on a quest to the Wastes to confront the witch.
On her way, she encounters a friendly scarecrow she calls Turnip Head, who encourages her to take shelter in a giant, moving mechanical house which seems to exist in a multiple places at the same time. In the Castle, she meets Markl, Howl’s apprentice, and the demon Calcifer, who has been captured by Howl and is the source of the castle’s magic. She announces herself as the cleaning lady, both to Markl and Howl, and before long everyone’s going on zany adventures.
There was a lot about Howl’s Moving Castle that I liked a lot more the second time around. Firstly, the titular character who – when I saw it with the Christian Bale dub – seemed like a smug, unlikeable jerk the entire time. Christian Bale is a great actor, but his natural cadence simply was not a good match for this character. Voiced by ex-SMAP member Takuya Kimura, Howl in the original dub is a lot more pleasant to listen to, which makes a world of difference. Generally speaking, I found the characters a lot more engaging and interesting, from the Witch (voiced by legendary drag queen Akihiro Miwa) to Sophie herself.
As much as I found myself engaged in what was happening, I did think that the story was just a little bit too heavy. While not nearly as bad as Goro Miyazaki’s Earthsea, this adaptation is very clearly just that: something taken from a much richer mythology, one of many books, and you feel it. Studio Ghibli has always been stronger when using its fantasy sparingly – in movies such as Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service or even Spirited Away, which gives us a real-world protagonist to empathise with.
Here, we’re thrown into a world with two kingdoms whose names are barely spoken, fighting a war the details of which are completely unknown. It’s hard to get invested in what’s happening when there’s no reason given for any of it. Because of this, Howl’s still falls flat. When magic is such a strong part of your story, but the rules are never established, like all the side characters whose connection to the story we only get a passing comprehension of, it’s hard to say this movie is particularly amazing.
However, here to redeem it, is the art which is as beautiful as you’d expect any Miyazaki film to be. And then some. The team at Ghibli clearly went all-out here, rendering some stunning imagery and animation. So even though you’re not sure what’s happening, it’s at least visually pretty enough to keep your attention until the closing credits. Throw in those likeable characters and some excellent action pieces, and Howl’s Moving Castle manages to stand strong by itself. Personally, I wouldn’t rank this anywhere near my top 5 Ghibli films, but I can see how people might attach themselves to it. It ticks off enough boxes to be decent, but not enough to be truly great.
Verdict: Probably not as good as some people say it is, Howl’s Moving Castle is nevertheless a solid piece of fantasy animation.
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Violence: 3/10 for good fantasy action
Art direction: 10/10
Blob men: Lots
That witch: Always causing trouble, isn’t she?
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Also known as: ハウルの動く城 (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Diana Wynne Jones (novel), Hayao Miyazaki
Sophie – Chieko Baisho
Howl – Takuya Kimura
Witch of the Waste – Akihiro Miwa
Calcifer – Tatsuya Gashuin
Markl – Ryunosuke Kamiki
Madame Suliman – Haruko Kato
Lettie – Yayoi Kazuki
Honey – Mayuno Yasokawa