Howl’s Moving Castle Review: A true timeless classic and one of Miyazaki’s best
When seeing the lineup for this year’s Studio Ghibli Fest, I was more than excited to see one of my personal favorites, Howl’s Moving Castle, kicking off this year’s series. While I was worried that my feelings weren’t going to be the same as I haven’t seen it in quite a while, the film immediately drew me right in and quelled all my worries with the fantastic characters and bright animation that Howl’s Moving Castle always reminds me of.
The film follows Sophie (Emily Mortimer/Jean Simmons), a young hatmaker, as she lives in wartime as her home kingdom is in fierce battle with a neighboring kingdom. After encountering a well-known, charming young wizard, named Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is unexpectedly turned old by the legendary Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) and is forced to turn to Howl for help. Together the two go through a magical adventure filled with deception, love, and true changes of heart.
What’s always drawn me to this film so easily is the good-hearted nature of it and the bright, vivid animation. Miyazaki implores plenty of positive themes throughout the film that delve into ideas of pacifism and compassion. While the two feuding kingdoms ask for any and every wizard, including Howl, to come and join them in battle, Howl sees things differently and tries fight against both sides in order to stop the war. Often times in film we are generally just shown one side as the “good guys” and root for them to win in a climatic war, but Miyazaki doesn’t desire to do that and focuses on creating some anti-war messages that expresses ideas of pacifism over doing what’s “right” or “good.”
Rather than just having distinct lines between heroes and villains, Miyazaki instead creates complex characters that never fit into one mold. Not to mention, even when characters start out disliking one another, like Sophia and the Witch of the Waste, there’s a genuine sense of compassion that grows between them to have an understanding for one another. It’s a film about understanding and focuses on the compassion that characters can have for one another rather than the conflict between them.
The characters are, honestly, what makes this film so memorable to me as the excellent voice cast establishes their fun personalities and their complex relationships are great to see unfold. Bale perfectly captures Howl’s charming, but narcissistic mindset and his line delivery excellently showcases Howl’s growing care for Sophie and their friends’ safety. He’s one of the things I absolutely adore about the film and I am glad that that didn’t change on a second viewing.
Mortimer and Simmons also combine their talents to create a fun and fearless female lead in the form of Sophie. It’s interesting how this second viewing made me realize how humorous Sophie can be and how her relationship with Howl builds. There’s a sequence between old Sophie and the Witch of the Waste where they climb stairs that had me cackling and it’s one of the many scenes that actually show her more humorous side. There’re also some nice moments that develop Sophie and Howl’s relationship and showcase their care for one another. Sophie sees Howl’s more personable and caring side and there’re plenty of moments that show both of their desires to keep each other safe no matter what the cost.
Even smaller side characters made a deeper impact on this second viewing with Calcifer (Billy Crystal) and Markl (Josh Hutcherson) adding some fun comic relief that felt like a new experience for me. I really have to give some major props to Crystal as his iconic voice blends so flawlessly that I completely forgot it was him. As Calcifer, Crystal creates some incredibly funny dialogue and helps guide character development for Howl and Sophie. Markl is also a lot of fun and, thanks to the voice work of a young Hutcherson, he adds a youthful spirit to the film that’s filled with a sense of pure adventure.
Now, I will say that revisiting Howl’s Moving Castle did make me notice some small issues and nitpicks that are a little hard to ignore. Admittedly, I did recognize that the film can pace a little slow at times and the circumstances surrounding the spell put on Sophie were a little unexplained this time around as it seems like she can switch back forth between her old and young self for no real reason. It’s either never outwardly explained or doesn’t come off as clear and it felt a little distracting.
However, this revisiting also made me find new appreciation for Miyazaki’s story-telling and world building. Throughout the film, I kept noticing how small background conversations about Howl and the war actually help develop the overall atmosphere of the world. These small conversations between background characters and even some of the imagery helps develop the deep impact of the war and even introduce Howl’s impact in the kingdom without having to directly talk about it. Deep world-building is always something I can appreciate in a film and seeing it done so well in Howl’s Moving Castle only made me love the film even more.
Seeing Howl’s Moving Castle again has only made me find deeper appreciation for a true Ghibli and Miyazaki classic. It’s an incredibly fun and fantastical adventure filled with great characters, astounding visuals, and excellent storytelling that’s enhanced by perfect voice casting. It’s a fantasy film full of great messages that are timeless and that anyone can enjoy.