In 2004, Miyazaki’s loose adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel hit Japanese theaters and quickly became the third highest grossing film in Japanese history. Filled with lessons about life and love, the film’s main story takes place against the backdrop of massive war with treachery and danger around every corner. Magic meets steampunk, but the movie is really all about heart. UPDATED with new screen captures and revised text.
There is magic to be found in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films and Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception. If a film comes out of Studio Ghibli you are guaranteed an incredible experience filled with beauty and emotion. Well, anything other than Pom Poko, but the less said about that movie the better. Yes, I am recommending buying this even before starting the review. So what makes it an automatic buy? Read on to find out.
The film begins with the title structure; a steam belching monstrosity on mechanical legs lurching through the mist of an European countryside. It is a beautiful view of an ugly thing, something that only Miyazaki could pull off. Shortly after seeing the castle ambulate into the mist to escape pursuers, the heroine of the movie is introduced.
Young Sophie Hatter is a hat maker closing up business for the day at the family shop located near a railroad track. When she exits the shop, we are treated to a panorama of busy city life rendered in fascinating detail. Flying machines buzz overhead, pulling a royal banner while steam powered cars and buses roam the streets. It is all classic steampunk that Miyazaki designs so well and is trademark of his.
It’s quickly apparent that this is war time and troops can be seen marching through the city. While taking a shortcut through a back street, Sophie runs afoul of two soldiers who begin hitting on her. A sudden rescue by a handsome blonde man dressed in somewhat foppish clothing leads to real magic when he casts a spell on the randy soldiers -- making them march off like something from The Nutcracker ballet. But there is a hint of danger hanging about the charming stranger, which comes to the for when he insists that she walk with him since he is being pursued.
That walk is pure movie magic as they ascend to walk the air itself, floating over the crowded streets. It is an extended sequence that you can forgive for its length due to how delightful it is. Eventually, he deposits Sophie on the second floor balcony of the bakery where Lettie, her sister, works. There we learn more about the mysterious young man from a conversation between the sisters.
Lettie is worried that the notorious wizard Howl is after Sophie. Feared for literally taking the hearts from beautiful young women, Howl is an object of terror much like the boogeyman. But Sophie dismisses it because the wizard is only interested in beautiful girls – which precludes her. Her looks are not the kind liked at the time, since she isn’t blonde and made up like a doll ala her younger sister.
The young hat maker returns to her late father’s shop, which she is determined to keep in business despite her sister telling her she needs to have her own life. A visit by a corpulent customer at this late hour introduces us to the Witch of the Waste, a vile woman with a grudge against Howl. One curse later and Sophie finds herself a shriveled old woman.
And now the story begins in earnest.
Horrified by her new appearance, she hides from her rather superficial mother before deciding to accept her fate. Leaving the city behind, the cursed girl travels into the hills and finds out that there are people willing to help an old lady. It is one of the very few perks of finding herself elderly. Pain and exhaustion are her new companions in life, something I can say as I get older that I do not enjoy. Ah youth, it is truly wasted on the young.
But is Sophie’s old age wasted on the young woman?
In the rugged countryside, Sophie accidently rescues an animated scarecrow whom she dubs Turnip. Turnip is a bit of a dandy and can only move by hopping, much like the lantern in Spirited Away. Asking it to help her find shelter, the scarecrow leads her to Howl’s Moving Castle which is on the move surprisingly enough. The ominous specter of flying battleships in the skies and the bitterly cold wind combine to drive her inside, where she finds quite the mess. It isn’t the only thing she finds.
There she meets Calcifer, a fire demon, living in the fireplace. He promises to break the spell she is under if Sophie will help break the one enslaving him. Showing intelligence if not wisdom, she isn’t easily persuaded by a demon she’s just met. Falling asleep like an old woman would, Sophie’s strange adventure has only begun.
The next morning a young boy enters the kitchen to answer a door being knocked on in a city. Quickly, he dons a disguise to pose as the wizard Jenkins’ assistant. Answering both customers and representative’s of the king, the boy covers for Howl. Markl also doesn’t approve of “Granny Sophie” being there but caves in quickly enough.
It isn’t long before Howl finally reappears through the magic door. Said door is actually a portal that leads to several other places selected by a colorful dial. The sinister wizard is strangely accepting of the newcomer right away and the atmosphere quickly develops a peaceful domestic feel.
That doesn’t last long, for the Witch of the Waste has set her sights on Howl’s heart. She isn’t talking romantically, if you get my drift, and her way of delivering a message is memorable while making the apprentice wonder if Sophie is her agent. That doesn’t sit well with the magically aged teen, but the curse she is under won’t let her speak about it to her great ire.
Allowed to stay on, Sophie faces something even more frightening than a womanizing wizard – his mess. The inside of the monstrous mobile home is filthy as only a bachelor could make it. Showing a stomach of cast iron and a will just as strong, she begins the task of cleaning it. That is enough to intimidate Calcifer and Merkl to my amusement.
While the domestic chores get an amazing amount of screen time, not all is right. Howl leaves without giving a hint of where he is going or what he is doing. Sophie may be left in the dark, but we get to see what the wizard is up to. Nightmarish images of flying ships burning down villages while a transformed bird like Howl soars above make a dramatic contrast to the domesticity. War is in full swing and not even a powerful mage can come through it unscathed.
Something rather interesting begins to occur when Sophie turns young again as she sleeps. Unaware of the wizard watching her, it is clear she has no clue that he knows her real identity. For a ruthless murderer of women, he shows a great deal of concern toward the former hatter. He also looks startlingly young for a wizard of his renown.
I’m going to stop for a moment and mention just how much the imagery of war is interlaced throughout the movie. For a student of history, much of it will seem familiar despite the steampunk touches. The pre-dreadnought battleships in particular harken back to World War I and the Russo-Sino War, but the fiery aerial bombardments are more inspired by the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo in World War II.
None of it glorifies or celebrates war. This is a movie of contrasts and one begins with the populace cheering on their military early before the fighting begins in earnest. Once again, that reminded me heavily of the beginnings of the “war to end all wars” at the beginning of the 20th Century. All that pomp and eagerness for battle that dissolved into a miserable meat grinder of a war is also shown in this movie. The scene where one of the proud battleships limps alone back into port to the confusion and dismay of the locals is a powerful one. Like many of the director’s movies, this is an antiwar film.
Back to the story playing out against that backdrop.
Castle cleaning leads to a temper tantrum from the wizard when his hair dyes get rearranged. Convince his looks are ruined, Howl falls into a deep depression causing the room to darken and slime to ooze from his body. “What's the point of living if you aren’t beautiful?” sobs the young man. Trapped in an aged body, Sophie hits her breaking point and angrily shouts, “I’ve never been beautiful!” before storming outside. There the buried pain of living with her curse finally emerges in unrestrained tears that fall in the rain.
After returning to put Howl in his place, Sophie finds herself drawn into political and supernatural intrigue. Another victim of the pursuit of power turns out to be the Witch of the Waste. Once beautiful, the use of dark magic destroyed her. Howl is in similar danger, having sacrificed his heart to a demon for power years before. For some time he has been searching for the right girl and breaking hearts in his quest, including the Witch’s.
Yet this maneuvering begins to pale against the backdrop of a worsening war. Flames and carnage consume more of the countryside and Howl is expected to serve the king. This sorely tests a life built on running away, but his having something he wants to protect causes responsibility to come knocking at his castle’s door.
Will Sophie be able to save Howl’s life and break her curse? Just what happened to make him the way he is? Those questions will be answered in a fast moving ending filled with bravery, sacrifice, and betrayal.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a beautiful film, filled with gorgeous imagery, deep emotion, and most of all – heart. At the core of the story are lessons on what really matters in life and what doesn’t. Howl’s irresponsibility has consigned him to a lonely life that changes when aged Sophie enters his castle. In turn, he begins to change despite his childishness.
There is a marvelous subtheme about beauty, with Sophie believing herself to be of average looks and Howl thinking life isn’t worth living if he isn’t beautiful. Once again, it is about what really matters which is about the quality of one’s heart and soul. There Sophie is a great beauty without question.
Family is another theme strongly weaved throughout the story. As it progresses, a strange little family begins to form inside the walls of the castle with none of it feeling forced. At the center is the sweet and motherly Sophie, with Howl slowly filling the father’s role and Merkl the child.
I’ve already written about the antiwar nature of the film a little, so all that needs to be added is that it is made very explicit by the dialogue later in the film. There is also something of an antigovernment message to the story with the political intrigues.This too is a common theme in Miyazaki’s movies.
The English dub is good, not as good as the original Japanese voice work. Christian Bale voiced Howl the same year as being in Batman Begins, so some of his voice work unintentionally made me envision the caped crusader. As the movie goes on, his performance improves. Lauren Bacall is terrific fun as the Witch of the Waste. While nothing like the original, Bacall makes the character hers. Emily Mortimer is serviceable as young Sophie and Jean Simmons is better as old Sophie with a shining performance. Billy Crystal is fine as Calcifer, but lacks some of the nuance of the original, playing more for comedy and missing some of the edginess. Blythe Danner does well with her small part. The rest of the voice cast tend to overplay their lines and sound like a mix of stage acting and high school plays.
I very highly recommend this movie for lovers of animation, romance, adventure, and quality movies. There are some war scenes that will frighten small children which make it firmly PG rated, so parents need to be aware of that. This is a very sweet movie with good messages on responsibility, redemption, and love.
Walt Disney Home Entertainment did a really good job with the double DVD edition. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen picture is good though it will show its age on a 1080p set. Colors are vivid and contrast is quite good, which is a must with such highly detailed content. But a Blu-ray edition would be very welcome indeed.
Both the Japanese and English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio options are excellent, adding much to the atmosphere. I can’t say if the French 5.1 track is, but it should be if the others are anything to go by. Another wonderful orchestral soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi graces the movie and is a work of beauty in its own right.
Extras are plentiful, which should be the case when two DVDs are provided!
Disc 1, all videos are in 4:3 ratio:
Behind the Microphone -- A fun documentary on the voice acting and English dub process. They had quite a challenge in translating and trying to fit words to the existing animation.
Interview with Pixar Animation Studios Director, Pete Doctor -- An interview with Pete Doctor on translating the script to English and the dub direction that aired on Japanese television.
Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar Animation Studios -- A surprise visit by Miyazaki to Pixar Studios for the first viewing of the English version of the movie.
TV Spots & Trailers -- The usual trailers and ads are included.
Storyboards -- I watched the movie in the original Japanese with subtitles as I usually do with all foreign films. However, I did listen to the English soundtrack in a rather unique experience offered on the second disc. The only bonus on the second DVD is the complete storyboards of the movie set to the English dub. This turned out to be much more interesting than expected, so I ended up watching the whole thing again.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
One of my favorite comedy scenes in the movie is when Sophie and the Witch of the Waste have to go up the steps to meet the king. It is a wonderful comeuppance for the evil hag who deteriorates as she wobbles up. Alongside, Sophie suffers from carrying the dog that she thinks is Howl in disguise. The lines are sharp and cutting between the two.
The whole encounter with Madame Suliman is a deft mix of humor and sinister doings that could have gone very wrong in a different director’s hands. Instead, it is executed with style that never betrays any of the portrayals. From the draining of the Witch’s power and false youth to Howl’s too intelligent impersonation of the king, it is immensely entertaining.
The flyer scene reminds me so much of Laputa, Castle in the Sky. If you are going to lift from someone’s brilliant work, it might as well be your own if you are Miyazaki.
Howl’s reshaping the castle to accommodate the odd family that has formed is cinema magic as well as storyline magic. It also gives us a glimpse of the true demonic nature of Calcifer who has served mainly as comic relief to this point. Then there is Sophie not noticing she is getting younger again, albeit keeping the gray hair. Her delight at Howl’s special gift to her is a very sweet scene.
The aircraft all being ornithopters of one type or another is interesting to an airplane buff such as me. Having rotating paddles in the wings made the bomber design particularly fascinating if completely impossible in real life.
The bombing attack where the castle has been magically transformed into a residence conveys the terror of war well. Following the betrayal by Sophie’s mother, it makes the third act feel like everything could end horribly. Howl’s transformations becoming worse and more permanent adds to the horror since the creatures he’s fighting are wizards drafted into the war. They will never be human again.
Sophie giving her hair to Calcifer is a sacrifice of the one thing that might be considered beautiful of herself by the young woman. Her love for Howl and will to save him made her a very strong female character – yet another Miyazaki trademark. The resulting mini castle is great fun to watch run along the landscape.
Two great shots of short haired Sophie that oddly work despite not showing her face. The first is a distinctly Japanese pose of despair that doesn’t quite fit the pseudo European setting, but conveys her complete collapse. The second is just lovely of her having gone back in time to see the boy Howl sell his heart to Calcifer. Shooting stars turning out to be little demons makes for a beautiful scene filled with mystery and tension.
But what makes it an emotional scene is her cry to him to wait for her in the future. The fact that he hears and sees her makes you realize that the search for a girl to love has always been about Sophie.
Sophie’s getting Howl’s heart from the Witch and physically restoring it seems like it only confirms what she had already done emotionally. It is still a sweet moment, mainly due to the revelation that it is a child’s heart. She has her work cut out for her, it appears.
So Turnip is really the missing prince from the neighboring country, eh? And only a kiss from his “true love” could free him of his curse. Looks like Howl will have a rival in the future.
With Calcifer surviving and returning, the makeshift family is complete. The Witch of the Waste has redeemed herself to some degree and taken a motherly shine to Sophie. Even the dog betrays his mistress, Madame Suliman to stay.
The final scene is icing on the cake featuring a rebuilt and very homey castle flying through the clouds. Of course, there has to be a Titanic like moment where Sophie and Howl kiss.