The tale of an industrious young milliner magically transformed into an old woman and her involvement with the household of a dashing wizard. From the genius behind Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki
Cast & Connections
Hayao Miyazaki, the master of refined and (mostly) traditional animation, probably couldn't make a bad film. But with Howl's Moving Castle he fails to top his previous films, Princess Mononoke (1997) and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001).
As with his 1986 film Castle In The Sky, Howl's Moving Castle is adapted from the work of Diana Wynne Jones, the British fantasy writer and onetime student of both JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. Castle In The Sky is actually her sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, and both films are set in the same world: a land that resembles Europe around the turn of the 19th century. Here, industrialisation and technology are still picturesque. Side by side with this ordinary human society is a world of magic, which is more tangibly threatening than the new belching steam trains and cars.
In a city of Germanic, candy-coloured buildings lives Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer in the American dub), a shy, hardworking hat-maker. She's flung into an adventure - as Miyazaki's young heroines generally are - when she has a back alley encounter with Howl (Christian Bale), a notorious wizard who is reputed to eat the hearts of beautiful young women. He doesn't eat Sophie's heart; instead he sweeps her off as he's being pursued by mysterious shadowy creatures. These are the minions of the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), a sometime employee of the royal court and former lover of Howl, who now has it in for him. Unluckily for Sophie, she's caught up in their battle and the Witch transforms her into an old woman (who is then voiced by Jean Simmons).
With consummate pragmatism, Sophie says to herself, "This isn't so bad. You're still in pretty good shape and your clothes finally suit you," then heads off alone into the Wastes. Here, she encounters another seemingly cursed entity, a mute scarecrow she dubs Turniphead. He leads her through the cold until she reaches the "moving castle" - a remarkable clanking construction that lumbers across the landscape thanks to the power of resident fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal). Sophie, with nowhere else to go, sets herself up as cleaner for Howl's household, which also includes a young apprentice (Josh Hutcherson). But as she grows used to her new body, and bonds grow between the members of this peculiar "family", a terrible mechanised warfare eats its way across the land and threatens the idyll.
It's a fabulous set-up, but unfortunately it lends itself to narrative convolutions that contrast with the immediacy of Spirited Away or Miyazaki's earlier films. The royal household, led by Howl's former mentor Suliman (Blythe Danner), is caught up in the war but it's never entirely clear who is fighting whom, or why. Perhaps this ambiguity is intentional, highlighting a sense of the futility of conflict. But as we see Howl, in the form of a giant flying bird, sweeping through fire-fights and battling other magical creatures, it's hard to fathom the implications. In one battle scene, the question arises: "Is it the enemy's or one of ours". The answer is, "What difference does it make?"
At its heart, the film is about Sophie discovering her true self, Howl discovering his, the Witch hers, and even Calcifer his. The whole thing is a jumble of journeys of self discovery set against Miyazaki's beautiful, evocative worlds.
In one scene the old Sophie, taking a break from her chores in the castle, sits beside a mountain lake, soaking in the scenery. The majesty of the mountains and the natural world is contrasted with the harshness of the society, where the seemingly benign combination of magic and industrialisation has collapsed into terrible destruction. There's doubtless a subtext here about the once agrarian Japan developing into the imperial, industrialised nation that felt atomic warfare firsthand. There are also themes relating to a more general disgust at the wastefulness of warfare, but again, it's not the film's greatest strength. That lies in the characterisation and, more so, in the characters' relationships with both themselves and each other.