Reviews, Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli Countdown: ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’

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Disclaimer: minor spoilers ahead!

Loosely based on Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel of the same name, Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, ハウルの動く城 or Hauru no Ugoku Shiro, is a magical adventure infused with luscious visuals, real life lessons, powerful anti-war sentiment, and the customary world immersion of a classic Studio Ghibli film.

The film adaptation tells the story of 18-year-old Sophie Hatter (Emily Mortimer), who suddenly finds herself cursed by the spiteful Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), making her age at least sixty years. Though at first understandably panicked, Sophie (now Jean Simmons) leaves home for the Waste, coming upon the legendary wizard’s castle. Ingratiating herself as the cleaning lady, Sophie befriends the complicated Howl (Christian Bale) and his young apprentice, Markl (Josh Hutcherson).

With a star-studded dub cast helmed by Pixar’s Pete Docter, the characters sparkle onscreen. As the film is an adaptation, the characters are not entirely Miyazaki’s own but he does mold them artfully to jump from the page to the screen. The talented Billy Crystal came in as Calcifer, the sarcastic fire demon mysteriously connected to Howl, joining the famed Lauren Bacall and Batman-familiar Christian Bale. Secondary, and non-speaking, roles such as Turnip-Head or Heen the dog are equally fantastic, characterized by detailed physical appearance and movements.

Miyazaki prepared a private screening for author Diana Wynne Jones in England, flying there himself with the completed film. The film is a loose adaptation and reflects more of Miyazaki than of the English author’s book. Jones was supportive of the movie, however, and refreshingly open-minded about it as an adaptation: “It’s fantastic. No, I have no input—I write books, not films. Yes, it will be different from the book—in fact it’s likely to be very different, but that’s as it should be. It will still be a fantastic film.”

Production design (c) Studio Ghibli

Visually, Howl’s Moving Castle is gorgeous, evenly saturated with colors and packed with whimsical details. With architecture based around Alsace in France and a steampunk element inspired by Albert Rubida’s futuristic technology works, the backgrounds were drawn and painted by hand, and digitized into the computer environment later. The characters were brought in similarly. Howl’s castle, the starting point of the film’s conception, was digitally rendered after much conceptualizing by Miyazaki. The book doesn’t explain the castle’s ability to move, or particularly how it moves, and Miyazaki became determined to explain it himself. The result was the mechanical chicken legs, and the slapdash style, we see on the screen today.

Concept artwork (c) Studio Ghibli

Magic, which also lends a hand in maintaining Howl’s castle, is logically a major theme in this film, but not necessarily just the magic of spells and curses. With Sophie forced into a different stage of life, and as she becomes more of a force among the other characters, they learn to deal with life as it comes – aging, self-care, self-esteem, fear and anxiety, relationships, family dysfunction, and finding one’s own inner power. Sophie, as she works through her anxieties and insecurities, is a strong woman with constant compassion, a trait useful for dealing with danger and less level-headed friends or family. There is an elusive strength and complexity in Miyazaki’s women that Western animation has yet to fully understand and produce onscreen.

Other themes, in addition to those of emotional strength and feminism, include Miyazaki’s familiar anti-war sentiments. In this case, the United States war in Iraq was at the political forefront, charging Miyazaki’s rage as he developed Howl’s Moving Castle. The film makes the war a more significant part of the story, something ominous and disastrous that first seems so far away but quickly descends upon Sophie and her friends. The war also foils much of Howl’s character, as he runs away and initially paints himself as a coward to avoid what he believes to be a terrible and unnecessary war. After proving himself a determined and defensive protector, his “cowardly” motivations become clearer and he becomes emotionally stronger.

Miyazaki’s final statement on war for the film comes when the reason behind the war is revealed. A commonly missed background line, near the beginning of the film, mentions the missing prince of one of the warring kingdoms; the ensuing war stems from one believing that the other kidnapped the prince. In actuality, the prince has been with Sophie and friends all along, as the helpful scarecrow, Turnip-Head. Even Madame Suliman refers to the war as ridiculous when she finds that the prince has been released from his curse and is returning home, hinting that she single-handedly concocted the war for her own ends, whatever they might be.

Miyazaki’s self-proclaimed favorite creation, Howl’s Moving Castle takes the audience through an emotional whirlwind of fantasy, adventure, danger, love, and life. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, the film lost to Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit but Howl’s Moving Castle remains one of the most popular and well-known Studio Ghibli films.

What are your thoughts? Do you love Howl’s Moving Castle?

Edited by: MJ Edwards

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About Kajsa Rain Forden

Kajsa is a writer from San Francisco, with a BA in English Literature, and a recent Cast Member at the Disney Store in San Francisco. She spends most of her time writing, binge-watching animated movies, and working in social media. With a soft spot for stop-motion, her favorite films are Coraline, Castle In The Sky, and The Thief and the Cobbler (Recobbled). You can find her on Twitter, or Tumblr (and most other social media) @TheKajsaRain, or at Disneyland.
  • Hannah Elkins

    Thank you Kajsa for the awesome review! I love Howl’s Moving Castle, as a movie and as a book.

  • I loved this movie when I first saw it and even claimed it as my favorite Ghibli film for the longest time. But after seeing it again after purchasing it on Blu Ray not too long ago, I felt there were a few things that I started to notice. I don’t dislike by much, far from a lot, I love the connection Sophie and Howl have together and the music and animation and magic this movie has is incredible! I guess my problem is kind of how it sort of drags sometimes for me. Guess that’d be my biggest thing I can think of.
    Still love this movie nonetheless 🙂

  • Míriam

    Beautiful article! Howl’s Moving Castle is definitely my all-time favorite Ghibli film. I love the characters so much, they’re so relatable! And the castle… Oh my goodness, the castle, I wish I could have one of those.

  • Jeremiah

    This movie pulls me in as only Miyazaki film can. It’s touching, delicately paced, so imaginative, everything that makes Miyazaki great.

  • Rachel Wagner

    While I do think it can drag a bit at times I enjoy this movie very much. I was interested with what you said about it saying something about war. I had forgotten that.