One animation studio you can always count on to turn out a decent film is Studio Ghibli. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been a huge fan of their films Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, and my respect for them only continues to grow. So today I made the decision to review Studio Ghibli’s very own film, Howl’s Moving Castle.
Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a fictional world full of war torn kingdoms, witches, and magic. Our main character, a young hatter named Sophie (Emily Mortimer), is turned into an old woman by the curse of an evil witch. Sophie seeks out the help of a well known wizard named Howl (christian Bale), who lives in a giant portable castle. Sophie learns that the king endlessly attempts to recruit Howl to fight in a brutal war going on with the neighboring kingdom. Sophie decides to aid Howl in resisting the king’s wishes. Along for the journey, the audience gets to meet a plethora of colorful and unique characters.
I would like to start by discussing the animation, because in usual Studio Ghibli fashion the visuals are breathtaking. Every frame of animation is a beautifully hand drawn painting, with exquisite attention to detail. This film is full of beautiful images of grassy landscapes, early 20th century city life, and creative fantasy creatures. I know the process for animating films like Howl’s Moving Castle is lengthy and time consuming, but damn is it impressive.
Studio Ghibli movies often take on a lucid form of storytelling, especially in Howl’s Moving Castle. Our characters just kind of go with the flow in terms of the plot, and the direction the film takes is always subject to change. Our protagonist will set out to do something, have her goal changed by some event, then will precede to roll with it and (as I said) go with the flow. I love this aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle because it makes the film unpredictable. You think that a series of events is leading to one thing, then suddenly the film u-turns and goes another direction.
The characters in Howl’s Moving Castle are diverse and very interesting. One of my favorites being a little fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), who runs Howl’s castle. He is very snarky and gets into arguments a lot with the other protagonists. Every second Calcifer is on screen is pure gold, as Billy Crystal gives him a lot of personality (just as he did Mike Wazowski in Monsters Inc.). I have a feeling other viewers will love the characters like Calcifer just as much as I do.
Howl’s Moving Castle deals heavily in the theme of war, mostly in opposition to the Iraq War. It takes a pacifist look towards war and all the pain it causes, which is an interesting angle. There is some unique imagery of war, including a fight in the dark between a group of airships. We see a lot of explosions and destruction caused by the airships as well as one of the protagonists injured badly by them. Some might find the film a little on the preachy side with the all anti-war messages and themes. I rather enjoyed these messages, however I think it’s understandable if some are irritated.
The musical score of Howl’s Moving Castle is very reminiscent of other Hayao Miyazaki (director of most Studio Ghibli productions) films like Spirited Away. The music is very soothing and relaxing, but also full of wonder and adventure. It’s something that really sticks out to me in Howl’s Moving Castle and for good reason.
The film ends on a very satisfying note. There are a few elements of the ending that seem a little on the convenient deus ex machina side. However I think that’s just how Studio Ghibli operates, and it’s totally fine. Their endings to films are always very different and unpredictable, delivering a satisfying conclusion.
I’m not sure exactly how Howl’s Moving Castle has alluded me for so long, but I am very glad I got the chance to experience it. The characters, story, animation, and music are all a delightful treat. It’s an odd film, but it deals with a lot of different themes in its own unique way. If you have an interest in animated or kids films, Howl’s Moving Castle is definitely one you should check out.
The Verdict: A