Sophie Hatter is a young woman who works in a hat shop, while it is not the life she wants she is happy to take it after the death of her father. She lives a normal life but after getting harassed by some soldiers down an alleyway, she meets a mysterious and caring wizard who goes by the name of Howl. While people warn that Howl is an evil man who eats the hearts of beautiful women, he is nice and charming enough to rescue Sophie from the soldiers, along with some strange blob men, and safely fly her back to her home. The bizarreness of the day doesn’t end there, as an evil witch known as the Witch on the Waste finds out about her meeting with Howl and puts a curse on her to take the appearance of a 90 year-old woman, and is unable to tell anyone about it. Wanting to lift this curse, she goes on a journey across the wastelands, and with the help of a magical scarecrow, she finds none other than a walking and possibly living castle that Howl calls his home. After getting to know the other residents of the house, including a talking fire demon known as Calcifer, Sophie finds out that she’s not only the only person with a mysterious curse, and there is more to see from Howl and his Moving Castle.
Not long after Spirited Away was released (2001), Hayao Miyazaki wanted to retire as a director, stating that he would only be involved in Studio Ghibli as either a writer or producer for the animated shorts that feature at the Ghibli Museum. In the same year, it was decided that the next film would be an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Dianna Wynne Jones, and the role of director was not given to Miyazaki, Takahata, nor any other director or animator from Studio Ghibli. It was given to Mamoru Hosoda, a director from Toei Animation who at the time was most well known for directing both the “Digimon Adventure” film and “Digimon: Our War Game!”, which were both compiled along with a third film “Digimon: Hurricane Touchdown”, to become the theatrically released “Digimon: The Film”. Due to creative differences between him and the executives at Studio Ghibli, Hosoda left the production in around the summer of 2002, and the project was left in limbo. Interested in the idea, Miyazaki proposed to direct the film himself. After the project was rebooted, development of the film lasted two years, and Dianna Wynne Jones herself was one of the first people to see the film in 2004 at a private screening in England.
The animation is for Studio Ghibli standards, really good. There is a lot of detail and realism in even the movements of the more fantasy characters. At most times it is very smooth and once again, a lot of effort was clearly put in it. The overall design borrows inspiration from early 20th Century Britain, and it looks brilliant, the colours and the attention to detail really gives the idea of a classic old fashioned setting. It looks like you are really there in that time, even with the walking mechanical houses, tanks and flying warheads. Even the dark scenes of battles and magical elements are really colourful and atmospheric.
My only really issues are the designs of the Castle and Calcifer. To me, the Moving Castle looks weird and out-of-place. It looks all dark and rusty, with the appearance of several animals. Calcifers design is also strange, in the original novel he is literally meant to have the appearance of a demon of fire, looking kind of frightening but easy to look at. Since this is a Miyazaki film, Calcifer’s design is toned down to look like the slime from Dragon Quest games. This childlike design means you can’t take him seriously, but since he is portrayed as a comic relief character, the design does work. The Witch of the Waste’s character design is a bit off some of the time, looking like a large blob more than an overweight woman, but there’s not much wrong the character design beyond that.
The music is really good, and I think it is really underrated soundtrack of Hisaishi’s work. The melodies are really nice and slow, the use of instruments from accordions to pianos adds to the overall setting in the film. There are also great use of silent and action heavy scenes. The only time I remember the soundtrack going off its path is in this one scene where a witch uses her spell to unveil Howl’s “true form” by using fire spirits around him, not shown due to spoilers sadly, and there are childish chanting music which sounds great, but doesn’t fit with the rest of the music in the film.
The Japanese voice cast is ok, but not great or impressive. Most of the cast is bland but I give credit to Chieko Baishô for voicing both the Young and Old versions of Sophie, since she does put a good effort giving a contrast to the tone of voices to give a change in age. Calcifer’s voice is also funnier in the Japanese version, done by Tatsuya Gashûin. However, I think the English version is the superior dub. All of the cast do a really good job, from Josh Hutcherson’s young and innocent voice for the wizard apprentice Markl, Billy Crystal’s quirky and humorous portrayal as Calcifer and Lauren Bacall gives an up-class but evil witch like tone as the Witch of the Waste. The two best portrayals happen to be the main characters, Sophie and Howl. Sophie is portrayed by both Emily Mortimer and the late Jean Simmons; the character was one of the latter’s final roles and while both are different actresses, they do a really good job trying to sound similar, while Emily Mortimer I believe sounds weak in her performance as the young Sophie, the older Sophie is very sweet and lovable. Howl is portrayed by Christian Bale and my god does he sound awesome, Bale offers a very dark tone which adds to the mystery of the character, yet he shows emotions like both a child and an adult so he is a well rounded character to say the least.
While this is one of the few animes which I read the original source material for, it isn’t really necessary to compare a film to a book. Since Miyazaki uses the source material as a basis and not a storyline, it’s obvious both versions would be different, and Calcifer’s design is only one example of the things that are different. As a film, I think it’s a story that doesn’t know what genre it is, there is a romance between Sophie and Howl, and there are elements of both realism and fantasy, but it doesn’t feel like a fantasy or a romance film. One minor problem I find with the film is that there are things in the ending in particular which don’t really make sense on a first viewing or maybe even a second viewing for some people, and other things aren’t even explained that well. What the story does have is great characters, which really develop like relatable people. Even the Witch of the Waste, shows a nice and peaceful side to her.
Overall, while I don’t think its Miyazaki’s greatest film, it is definitely a great film with a brilliant set of characters and a great musical score. Even if it’s a weak adaption, and on its own not a great story, it has a great set of characters and environments so it is certainly worth viewing.
Howl’s Moving Castle is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. The original novel by Diana Wynne Jones, originally released in 1986, has been reprinted many times and is currently available from HarperCollins. Jones later wrote two sequels, “Castle in the Air” in 1990, and “House of Many Ways” in 2008, both of which are also currently available from HarperCollins.