Jules Does

Jules Does Films: Howl’s Moving Castle

Posted on: September 6, 2012

DISCLAIMER 1: I can count the things I know about anime on one hand using only my thumbs. I’ve heard enough to know that Miyazaki is the master of the art form (although further recommendations in the comments would be much appreciated), but of his work I’ve only seen My Neighbour Totoro, a film which I can only describe as whimsical (which is dangerous, given that ‘whimsical’ is generally applied to 1. Things which aren’t whimsical and are just silly or 2. Wes Anderson). As a result I brought very few preconceptions to Howl’s Moving Castle, although I suspect I would feel differently about it if I had seen Spirited Away, the film which won Miyazaki his Oscar.

DISCLAIMER 2: I have not read the original source material for the film, the book of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, so I can’t compare the treatment of the subject matter in the two media.

That said, let’s get on to the review [Mild spoilers ahead].

The film is about a young lady named Sophie, who is turned into an old woman by a local sorceress, called The Witch of the Wastes, after an encounter with the enigmatic and magnetic wizard Howl. In order to hide her condition from her ditzy mother she runs away onto the Wastes outside her town and, with the help of a sentient scarecrow, she hops onto Howl’s moving castle and sets herself up as the resident cleaner. The newly-minted family faces a variety of challenges, including a looming war with a neighbouring kingdom.

I found the plot a touch nebulous at times. Apart from some key structural points, like the link between the lives of Howl and the fire demon Calcifer who powers the house, there were several things that went unexplained and a very few things that could have been jettisoned. For example, I’m not sure that we needed Sophie’s responsibility and self-sacrifice to be underlined by the frivolity of her mother, who also betrays her with no further follow-up. One of the best things about magical realism is the total immersion in a magical world without recourse to much exposition (and this film was very good at trimming unnecessary exposition), but even in a world where wizards and witches wander apparently unchecked people seem terribly casual about Sophie’s transformation into a 90-year-old woman. Also, why does Howl turn into slime? Was Howl born a wizard or is it his cardiac union with Calcifer which makes him magical? Why does Sophie slip between young and old with such fluidity? It can’t be when she’s being brave or selfless, since those were already character traits she displayed earlier, and this is not a standard fairy tale where the protagonist is given an ironic punishment for their behaviour (think Beauty and the Beast). If anything it is the vain Howl who should be transformed into an old man for his unceasing vanity (which, oddly, doesn’t seem to be much of a plot point). This makes it seem like I was confused for the entire duration of the film, but one of the best things about HMC is how it swept the viewer (in this case, me) along on a visually rich journey and leaves you to figure out whatever justification you want for various confusing events later.

Speaking of visuals, sometimes the gorgeously rendered depictions of Sophie and Howl’s life and the ferocious war waged between the two nations somewhat swamp the actual storyline. Sometimes images go a long way towards explaining plot points (the Witch of the Wastes rendered harmlessly gelatinous lends to her new image as relatively gentle and, except for one key moment, helpful to the little group) but sometimes the concern was clearly more for the appearance of the film than for its substance. It is a very visual film, so don’t expect to have the same appreciation of it if you get distracted by something else and look away from the screen.

The characters were well-paired to their voice actors, and I especially enjoyed Lauren Bacall as the Ursula-like corpulent Witch of the Wastes. Billy Crystal managed not to ham up Calcifer, and Christian Bale’s voice combined with the physical beauty of his character made him immediately magnetic, although Howl himself shuttles between worldly wizard princeling to spoiled child distressed at the change in his hair colour. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted (Howl and Sophie in the castle before their escape, for example) but in general it was touching and well-written.

To conclude a somewhat disparate review: a lovely film which I will recommend freely. Just get rid of the pointless mother and sharpen up one or two things and it’s in the running to be the best, most beautiful animated film on God’s green earth (or on His silver screen).

For a much better review, may I refer you to Steve Biodrowski’s article? It’s very good.




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