Japanese Title: Howl no Ugoku Shiro
Similar: Spirited Away
Watched in: Japanese & English
Length: 1 hr. 57 min.
- Howl’s castle.
- Charming world and characters.
- Plenty of humour.
- Attention to visual detail.
- Finale could have taken a moment or two longer.
There was once a time when I was unaware of Studio Ghibli. Times were darker then, the teenage years. It was a late night at a friend’s house after hours of mahjong that he decided to play Howl’s Moving Castle. I was enchanted. Where had this Japanese Disney been all my life? Howl’s Moving Castle drew me in with its vibrant, detailed world of wizards, curses, and the best house in fiction.
Sophie works as a simple hatter until, by chance, she meets the enigmatic wizard Howl, who literally sweeps her off her feet. Jealous of Sophie’s meeting with Howl, the vain Witch of the Waste curses Sophie into old age. Sophie must find Howl to lift the curse and climbs aboard his castle as it roams the grassy hills.
Seeing the castle alone was the price of entry. It is a ramshackle place, a bit silly (not as silly as Camelot, of course) in all the right ways. The front door has a special lock, which when turned, opens up to different places in the world. Howl, despite his prodigious skill, lives akin to a messy child with junk everywhere – likely has never seen a dustpan across its surfaces. Sophie takes it upon herself to clean the place, get everything prim and proper, scolding Howl in the process. Howl’s Moving Castle is very reminiscent of Mary Poppins, right down to the music, if you gave her magic side to Howl and her discipline to Sophie.
Sophie makes for an unlikely protagonist and a feisty old lady. She doesn’t take the curse lying down; hell, she doesn’t accept nonsense from anybody, evil witch or handsome wizard. I like her. A favourite moment of mine is when she bosses Calcifer, the fire demon that powers the castle from the hearth, around as she whirls through the castle in a storm of broom and dust.
Apprentice to Howl is Markl, a young boy with magic of his own. Like most Ghibli films, he plays the stand-in for the younger audience and conveys their innocent outlook on the world. Ghibli, as always, gave extra attention to character mannerisms, making them feel alive. When granny Sophie’s neck cricks or her back breaks, you feel the excessive effort and pain. There is so much charm packed into every detail.
The plot takes place against the backdrop of a war and every wizard must answer the call of duty. Howl despises the king and his royal sorcerer who wants to catch him, hence the need for his mobile castle. Howl’s aversion to conflict isn’t as much out of noble intentions as it is his child-like manner. He is spoilt, obsessed with his appearance, prone to sulking, and unable to take responsibility – explains the state of his abode. He’s no Gandalf, but is a great character.
The story’s one flaw is in the conclusion. A few extra minutes to explain the end ending further would have worked wonders, and a minor twist, of sorts, comes out of nowhere. Its sudden nature is more humorous than anything.
Howl’s Moving Castle sparked my interest in Studio Ghibli and it’s easy to see why. This film has it all: witches, wizards, a magic castle, monsters, a sentient scarecrow, and a cheeky dog. I loved every moment of this enchanting film.
Art – Very High
Gorgeous. The colour, the world, the design, all feels magical. The castle’s animation alone would take more time than most anime seasons. I have to pause every shot to admire the detail.
Sound – Very High
The Japanese is good, but I found the dub superior. The characters had more energy in English, Calcifer in particular, performed by a memorable Billy Crystal, whereas the Japanese Calcifer is rather forgettable. Only Christian Bale falters as Howl in English, though he is grumpier, which suits the character. Charming Mary Poppins music.
Story – High
A woman cursed by a witch seeks a wizard in his moving castle. Enchanting, imaginative, and fun throughout.
Overall Quality – Very High
Recommendation: A must watch for the whole family. Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away are the best films to start you journey in the wonderful worlds of Studio Ghibli.
Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)