A wonderful fairy-tale adaptation from Studio Ghibli, Howl’s Moving Castle is a visually amazing film that deals in themes of love, war, and trust in a setting where magic and technology sometimes go hand in hand. The storytelling sometimes tries to do too much and doesn’t always juggle its various plot threads well, but even with the film’s many oddities, it’s more than gorgeous enough to make up for its narrative shortcomings.
The movie is a visual marvel.
The story opens by showing an architecturally monstrous castle, which looks like it was incredibly complex to animate, “walking” on legs through a fog. The misshapen but enormous castle is steam-driven and is shown, for scale, next to a comparatively tiny house and a flock of sheep. The focus then shifts to a beautiful European-looking town, whose art direction immediately brings to mind the incredible Kiki’s Delivery Service and is sometimes even lovelier to look at than that film was. A young shop worker, Sophie, is sewing flowers into hats when several other women excitedly announce the arrival of a man named Howl, who evidently has a reputation as a heartbreaker.
The plot jumps around from there and shows a variety of different sights, such as a parade and a crowded, incredibly detailed city square, but the plot doesn’t really settle on any one specific idea. Sophie makes her way through the city before being cornered by two perverted guards who try to take advantage of her (being a children’s movie, the scene is restrained but nonetheless creepy) when all of a sudden a blond-haired, blue-eyed gentleman with a silky smooth voice shows up behind her, sends the two guards off effortlessly, then leads her away. Sophie seems at least as scared of her new protector as she was off the guards, but all seems well until some very weird spirit-goop creatures in hats start coming out of the walls and chasing these two heroes. This is indeed Howl, and he is able to give himself and Sophie the power to literally walk on air.
As you might imagine, the plot at this point is rather random, and this doesn’t change throughout the film. This does provide more than enough excuse to show off the movie’s ridiculously pretty environments, even as Sophie’s shins look a bit thin. The various snapshots of daily life are absolutely crammed with activity, but these vignettes shortly lead into a scene where Sophie’s hat shop is invaded by a rather large witch. The Witch of the Waste casts a spell on Sophie that turns her into an old woman (and the poor girl has body-image issues as is), and Sophie heads off to the wastes to look for a cure.
The setting is full of wonder and surprise.
Set to an enjoyable if often repeated waltz, this unorthodox adventure with a geriatric protagonist soon becomes a lot less lonely when a stick that Sophie tries to use as a cane turns out to belong to a scarecrow. That scarecrow follows her. She doesn’t want him to, having had enough of wizards and spells, and the bitterness in her voice, while consistently noticeable, starts off small but increases throughout much of the movie. Said scarecrow, a gentleman at what passes for a heart, indeed gives Sophie a cane and helps her find a place to stay. Meanwhile, a battleship flies overhead.
Naturally the two end up at Howl’s currently stationary castle, and while this was not the kind of resting place she had in mind, she has no other options. The castle is ugly inside and out, in remarkable contrast to most of the other settings in this movie, and while this looks like it’s setting up for a message about “not judging others by appearances,” the storytelling never really becomes focused well enough to pull that off. The next thing Sophie knows, however, she’s talking to a literal spirit of fire, a sarcastic demon named Calcifer. Both of them are rather acerbic regarding their circumstances, and they make a deal to try to break one another’s curse; Howl makes Calcifer warm his entire castle and keep it moving, which places a rather humane twist on the old question of heating bills. Sophie is literally unable to speak about the curse that’s been placed on her, but thankfully Calcifer notices her problem so quickly that it’s a wonder that rule was added to the plot at all.
A young boy named Markl is also inside the castle. He pretends to be an old man for the sake of his spell shop and for practicing his magic; said spell shop links to the castle by way of a magic door, which itself has a dial that can be turned to link to any of several different doorways. One of several doorways leads to a royal city, and another even leads out into a gray wasteland. This is one of the film’s neatest ideas and most interesting uses of magic, but thinking too hard about how these various portals work and where the castle is actually located at any given point might lead to headaches.
The plot tries to do too many things at once.
As with such other Ghibli works as My Neighbor Totoro and Castle in the Sky, the film then becomes a short montage of the main protagonist helping with various chores. While not as “mature” or resolutely diligent as Kiki was in her film, Sophie’s attitude and noticeable bitterness give her a very clear identity without ever making her annoying. Calcifer brings laughs through his mishaps, such as falling into tea he’s heating, and while Howl’s castle has somehow fallen into disrepair (if it ever was in any other condition), the outside scenery is gorgeous. It commands all of Sophie’s attention.
The movie’s own attention soon changes focus again, this time to a depiction of the town from earlier–except that in this vision, it’s being torn apart by war and burned to the ground by bombings (there’s no human damage shown, unlike in Grave of the Fireflies–note that the link contains potential story spoilers–but the damage to the buildings themselves is all too clear). Howl flies through this environment by turning into a bird and later discusses the state of the impending war with Calcifer. Several evil birds that were chasing Howl willingly made themselves into monsters, probably living weapons, for a king’s service. A line suggests that Howl may have trouble undoing his transformations if he keeps them up, but the movie only somewhat holds him accountable for this. A narrative path in which Howl had to choose between his humanity and (through transforming, maybe permanently) his ability to keep Sophie safe could perhaps have been very touching, but it’s not a direction the movie heads toward.
The story’s decision to place the heroes on separate story routes is fine, but the problem is that these routes don’t really converge all that well. The war story and the classically intended fairy tale don’t really add much to one another, and the former is given too much focus to work as well as it did in something like Pan’s Labyrinth, which used a similar combination of settings; that focus causes its own problems later in the film.
And that’s where things become complicated.
This fantasy story, without becoming too graphic or directly showing death, also tries to become a war story and succeeds to a point, as a heavily damaged boat more or less limps into a harbor while its crew try to swim to shore. An enemy airship bombs the water and drops propaganda onto an otherwise delightfully crowded and colorful oceanside market. On the bright side, the inside of the castle is lovely, now that it’s been cleaned properly (yes, scene transitions sometimes really are that quick in this movie), but the abrupt weirdness found in the movie’s opening minutes returns as one of many series of events that defy explanation on several levels. The most disturbing is that Howl is inexplicably angry at Sophie for “sabotaging” his magic potions, which cause his hair color to change. He develops body-image issues similar to the younger Sophie’s, but his development process doesn’t feel as gradual or natural as do her own. Sophie, on the other hand, is a remarkably complex and well written character who is capable of being kindhearted and quick-tempered in turn without feeling as contradictory or unpredictable as Howl sometimes does.
Just when the movie seems to have gone for too long without utilizing the Witch of the Waste, she returns and establishes her motives for pursuing Howl. He, meanwhile, is trying to decide whether and how to answer the king’s summons for war, in accordance with an oath Howl had pledged upon joining the royal sorcery academy. The witch, by this point, has become so exaggerated in her deformed body (as much as some of the characters from director Hayao Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away, or one might think of Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars) that her appearance might honestly disturb some younger children. Sophie, however, still bears her youth in her eyes, which look gorgeous on most of the people in the movie, including Howl and indeed the witch.
An odd scene of the elderly Sophie and the witch trying to struggle up a set of stairs to receive an audience with a king makes way for a somewhat complex war plot in which the movie’s internal morality just falls apart as it tries to go in several directions at once. War and its technology are universally portrayed in a negative light. Fine. It goes against the nostalgic portrayal of the Japanese navy in Grave of the Fireflies, which in fairness wasn’t directed by Miyazaki, but the anti-war message within this movie is at least internally consistent, arguably even more so. The story’s “fairy-tale” aspects deal with themes of self-image, but several plot events that would strongly impact these themes are delivered without character commentary, making me wonder if these people often realize what is happening to them as it happens. The movie’s own treatment of “sides” in war is idealistic in its own cynicism, such that during a certain scene, a character asks whether or not a certain vehicle belongs to the enemy. The response? “What difference does it make?”
Leaving the question of “justifiable defense” for another day, the bigger problem is that this movie’s fairy-tale aspect and its anti-war aspect really don’t mix together or complement each other. Sophie’s idealistic views of Howl’s motives are treated as though they play something of a part in reversing the spell placed on her, but this doesn’t extend to her equally cynical views of another person’s motives, which aren’t also shown as being damaging.
“Oh, what a pretty fire …”
The later portions of the film depict an actual bombing’s aftermath in a manner played more for lingering impact than for quick scares; the movie’s artistic quality is such that even scenes like this become strangely beautiful in their own way. The bombings are dramatic and incredibly rendered enough to bring to mind questions of how things like this could have been drawn by hand. On a personal level, one character actually does catch on fire, but this isn’t emphasized for the sake of violence, even as it goes on for several seconds.
As with earlier scenes, many things in this portion of the movie are very difficult to explain, whether because of their being strange and supernatural or because of their simply not making sense. Sophie’s good intentions sometimes become very odd actions even as she works to be the grand rescuer. The ultimate outcome of the movie is likable, but it’s not always clear how the characters naturally progressed to that point, as several subplots feel like they could have used more attention. This doesn’t stop the movie from being extremely lovely to look at, and it’s definitely worth a glimpse even for viewers who aren’t interested in the sometimes messy storytelling.
It’s a gorgeous movie that could use polish.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a visual delight that makes use of color and detail as have few other animated films I’ve seen, and the movie is more than capable of being a deserving recommendation even on these merits alone. The plot is too often divided against itself in all too many ways, whether in being inconsistent about the value of trust or in not matching earlier Studio Ghibli works in how militaries are necessarily portrayed (even Porco Rosso didn’t do this; Castle in the Sky did to some extent but also had more interesting villains than this film does). It feels strange to praise a movie primarily on an aesthetic level when the story at least somewhat tries to go against that, but the art is where this movie succeeds the most evenly and the most powerfully.
Content issues are few but sometimes individually significant. At one point there is a split-second glimpse of Howl’s rear from a side view; there is also a single use of the expression “god-forsaken,” which might bother some parents. Two big points of concern are that the depiction of a war-destroyed town beneath a darkened sky is disturbing even without showing violence against the people themselves, and some scenes do absolutely everything in their power to be as weird as possible, even to the point of being excessive and downright creepy. One character smokes a cigar onscreen and is depicted as doing so in several scenes that go on for about ten minutes.
For viewers looking for similar and generally equally gorgeous art directions that come with simpler and cleaner storytelling, The Secret World of Arrietty and Kiki’s Delivery Service come as wholehearted suggestions, particularly for younger audiences, though see my notes at the end of the latter’s review, at the top of this page. Howl’s Moving Castle, while not a perfect tale, is nonetheless a very worthy film whose broad-strokes intentions are mostly easy to approve of even as they come up short in too many details. The art is incredible, but the story and its message that “love conquers all,” however unfocused, definitely deserve a chance to be appreciated as well.
Author’s note: This post also appears on my movie-review blog, Projected Realities.