Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Coming off of two of Hayao Miyazaki’s most beloved films, Princess Mononoke and  Spirited Away, it seem a bit of a letdown coming into the slightly “smaller” Howl’s Moving Castle. However, I quickly found that Howl’s Moving Castle was not lacking for grand ideas and wonderful imagination. In fact, it is a film which feels very much like a Hayao Miyazaki film, which is to say it creates a marvelous world full of incredible, strange ideas, but at its core contains strong characters and a compelling story about a young woman and the young man for whom she has fallen in love. At this point, any intricate imaginary worlds should come as no surprise when entering a Miyazaki film, and with a few films left on the docket from the master, I must certainly say I am looking forward to them. Even if they don’t reach the highs of MononokeSpirited Away, or Totoro, Miyazaki has proven to deliver entertaining and fascinating films.

Like a lot of Miyazaki’s films, the protagonist of the story is not the title character of the film. Sophie is a young, dedicated worker at her family’s hat shop. One day, while on her way to the bakery, she encounters Howl, a charming wizard whose heart is sought after by the Witch of the Waste. After seeing Sophie with Howl, the Witch puts a spell on Sophie, turning her into an old woman. Sophie decides to venture out to find a cure to her spell. Along the way she encounters a curious scarecrow who leads her to Howl’s Moving Castle, a unique walking structure which is both the home of Howl, a fire demon named Calcifer and his sidekick Markl, but also a portal with doorways to multiple locations. Sophie poses as the new cleaning lady in hopes that she and the unique inhabitants of the castle can help each other out, and she can break her spell of old age.

So when this movie came to a close, I think I liked it less than I do now, and I’m not quite sure I can put my finger on exactly why that might be, but for some reason the intricacies of the world built by Miyazaki and his team seemed less impressive or perhaps less evident right away. For this reason, I would love to re-explore the film knowing of the intricacies. I wonder if perhaps I just wasn’t in as prescient a state as I would have liked during the screening because I’m to the point in Miyazaki’s filmography where I know what to expect, I know to expect the strange, and the be thrown into the world with no real warning, something I lamented in my initial Miyazaki experiences. No, I think this world, the world of Howl’s Moving Castle is just as interesting and detailed as any of his others and really sticks in my mind as a great strength for the film.

Perhaps, then, where the film lacks in crossing over into the greatness or masterpiece realm of some of his other films is the character of Howl. Howl is a good idea on paper, but I felt his presence on screen was too sparse and mysterious to truly be connected with his story and struggles. Because he is such a large part of the story, this becomes a detriment to the film. However, Sophie is a marvel, and I loved following her arc throughout with such a fascinating scenario as her being under an old age spell. Realizing her lack of self-confidence and how she feels she is already not beautiful, by placing her under this spell, Miyazaki is turning the camera on the audience, the general public who celebrates beauty and often feels they themselves do not measure up. But what Sophie has going for her, apart from actually being beautiful and just not realizing it, is that she works hard, has goals, and strives to meet them as well as being a great friend to those who need her most.

It seems unfair to call this film anything but good, but it is also impossible not to compare it to the past output of not just Hayao Miyazaki, but also of Studio Ghibli, where it just doesn’t quite measure up. It is lesser Miyazaki. It is lesser Ghibli. But I would still enthusiastically recommend the film for fans of either as it perfectly embodies the method and charm of both. By creating a world as detailed and entertaining as this is not an easy task. Turniphead, Sophie, Markl, Howl. These are all wonderful creations in the Studio Ghibli canon with which it is a pleasure to spend time. Not only that, the animation, as ever, is wonderful and even manages to incorporate a little, very subtle, use of CGI to compliment the wonderful hand drawn renderings of this magical world. Howl’s Moving Castle is good, even very good. It’s certainly not its fault it’s not an instant classic.

*** – Very Good

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