Movie Review – Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most financially successful Japanese films ever made. It grossed $236 million worldwide, which is quite a feat for a picture like this. It’s also yet another Miyazaki film that has had heaps of praise for its inventive magical world and characters. However, it’s the first Miyazaki movie in this series that I would rate below everything that has come before. For all of the technical mastery of animation and the fully developed world, I would argue something is lacking to pull all the elements together. Miyazaki revisits some old themes and some new ones, and I think the result is a very confusing picture.

Sophie is a young hat-maker who encounters the mysterious wizard Howl while out on an errand one day. This brief encounter puts the Witch of the Waste on her trail, another magic-user on the hunt for Howl. The Witch puts a spell on Sophie, transforming her into a ninety-year-old woman. Sophie leaves home, knowing she must find a cure, but the magic has the caveat that she cannot tell anyone about it. 

On her journey, Sophie saves a living scarecrow she nicknames Turnip-Head, and in turn, he leads her to the titular Moving Castle, a conglomeration of buildings and machinery all on robotic legs. Once inside, Sophie meets Howl’s young apprentice Markl and the fire demon Calcifer, who powers the whole contraption. Outside of her isolated town, Sophie learns about the broader war brewing between nations and how Howl is caught in the middle. Each side is gathering their armies and their sorcerors to brutally eliminate the other side. Sophie learns that the solution to her problems and those of the larger world is to embrace love, but can they do it in time?

The world of Howl’s Moving Castle is absolutely stunning. This is a mixture of European fairy tales and the very American Wizard of Oz. There are wicked witches, living scarecrows, even a little dog tagging along for fun. The problem is I never felt a strong understanding of or connection with Sophie, our protagonist. Miyazaki does such an excellent job of developing these lead characters, with Chihiro in Spirited Away being my favorite of the lot. But the director never seems to know how to make Sophie a commanding presence. There is so much happening around her that she is never personally connected with that she becomes a neutral passenger observing the world and the conflicts. Howl leaves the castle and engages directly with the war while Sophie always seems distant from it. 

Thematically, Miyazaki is returning to his anti-war themes from Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke. The filmmaker has specifically cited his disgust with the American War in Iraq as what inspired this material. I feel that Howl’s Moving Castle is overly simplistic in its dialogue on war. There is never an exploration behind the circumstances that led to this moment, and the audience is never allowed to see it develop. Sophie is living her life, and then suddenly, war erupts. Some angles make this approach to anti-war movies work, playing up how people can be so ignorant of the world around them until it is too late. But we never get that with Sophie. Instead, she becomes muddled in a thinly developed romance arc with Howl while the war plays out in the periphery until the third act.

Miyazaki has been long interested in flight and portraying flight on screen. In the steampunk world of Howl’s Moving Castle, he gets the opportunity to bring back airships that we saw in Nausicaa. He also explores how these contraptions can be used for recreation and convenience and as deadly weapons of war. Miyazaki wants to explore ideas about technology and modernity as both blessings for humanity and as advancements in our own destruction. The development of technology can be a beautiful thing but is so often co-opted by those who exploit is destructive elements.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a movie that ultimately doesn’t work for me. That doesn’t mean it is bad or not worth a watch. An okay Miyazaki film is still light years ahead of most animated fare you could view. The blending of traditional and computer animation is gorgeous to behold; the director always makes decisions about how much should be digital and where it should be placed. Not once did the digital assets clash with the cel animation. The film did make me curious about the novel it is based on; I know Miyazaki diverted from the source material a bit. The world is interesting enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing how it plays in book form.

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