Following on the heels of the Oscar Winning Spirited Away, comes another breathtaking adventure from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki’s films are known for placing a female protagonist in a very out-of-her-element situation. Moreover it’s a story of a strong willed woman/girl finding their inner strength and what it takes to believe in herself. Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t exactly fit within that template but this similar story is more about said protagonist, Sophie, inspiring those around her with her positive attitude and determination. That’s another common storyline in Ghibli films.
Castle tells the story of Sophie, a plain as they come young woman finding contentment in a world filled with wonder, extravagance and, most interesting of all, magic. Sophie keeps to herself and as hat maker the colorful world outside her shop window is of little interest. That is until the day she (completely by chance) is saved by Howl, the most charismatic wizard in the countryside. But little does Sophie know, the Witch of Waste (ever jealous of Howl) saw Howl’s gesture of kindness and places a curse on her stripping away her youth. Sophie then sets out, leaving home for the first time, to break the curse and along the way joins forces with the most magical friends she could ever hope to meet.
Miyazaki’s films are treats for the eyes, hearts and minds in that they offer great visuals but also a great many messages. As stated above, the conviction and perseverance Sophie exhibits is the real lesson to take home. Her hard work and and bright spirit are her true gifts and though she may be faced with her curse (one so evil she can’t even tell people she has it) she still pushes on to do whats best. She gets Calcifer to reveal his friendly side, she becomes like a big sister to Markl and even shows patience and understanding with the accomplished but immature wizard Howl.
Funny because you really can’t call very many Miyazaki characters a real hero because they don’t really save lives, they simply inspire people to make the right decisions. While Ghibli films focus on the environment as a reoccurring theme, in this film it’s about standing up for yourself with a hidden anti-war stance.
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In Howl’s Moving Castle the characters are really dynamic and play off each other well. Kind of a disjointed family, Sophie is the missing cog that makes it all work. It’s a wild ride with some stunning and lavish locales, gorgeous animation and colorful characters. Although it may just be a personal bias but the Japanese language track always provides the more enjoyable rendition of the delightful dialog. But no Miyazaki film is complete without the enchanting music of Ghibli regular Joe Hisashi. The heartwarming characters and animation really would be very flat without his gift for bringing real depth and emotion to the flush out the story. By the way, the score to Howl is one of his very finest to date.
But with praise comes knit-picks and there are a small but notable amount. Adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’ novel of the same name, Castle feels like there’s more to the story that isn’t being told. For instance the biggest plot device is the ongoing war that calls all magicians to the fight. We see Howl sneak out and fight in the dark of night and glimpses of a raging war but it’s still very non-descript. Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? More importantly, why are the fighting? What’s the outcome if one side wins over the other? And when Howl transports to fight, where does he go and what makes the wizards turn into monsters?
Yet, and this may be making excuses for lags in the plot exposition, if the inhabitants of the story are fine with the common place of magic and other unexplained elements and don’t question it then maybe it’s not a big deal. Just accept slight lags in plot and the tied up ending and have fun with the film at face value.
While there’s a much grander story at play, the film is mostly about Sophie and focuses on the unlikely friendship of those willing to accept people as they are. Sophie’s got a curse, Howl’s got a curse, pretty much everyone has some kind of curse they are trying to cure (maybe it’s a metaphor for personal change and growth?) but it’s a satisfying story about friendship and working together. It’s an enjoyable ride you won’t mind taking again and again.