Movie Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

May 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Howl's Moving Castle (film)One of my top five favorite movies is Hayao Miyazaki’s animated gem, Howl’s Moving Castle. Beautifully rendered, it is a witty, whimsical, gloriously romantic fantasy with an unconventional heroine, a troubled, conflicted hero, and a motley crew of misfits who help and hinder the quest. In a kingdom at war, all the main players are trapped by a curse or self-imposed façade. This plays well into the movie’s main theme: overcoming fatal flaws.

The heroine, Sophie, is a quiet, hard-working girl who puts the success of the family hat shop above her own pleasure. One day, two soldiers accost her in an alley, and the beautiful, powerful wizard Howl swoops in and rescues her. This spurs the jealousy of the Witch of the Waste, who casts a spell that turns Sophie into an old woman. Hunched over and barely recognizable as her former self, Sophie heads out into the wasteland of witches and wizards in search of a cure. Her journey takes her aboard the wondrous moving castle of Howl, and she begins the adventure that forever changes her life and the lives of all those she encounters.

When I first saw this movie, I couldn’t believe that somebody had encapsulated my idea of the perfect fairy tale. The heroine’s strength is her weakness, and vice versa. Sophie’s work ethic and complete lack of vanity are what help her cope with her curse. “You’re still in pretty good shape,” she says, looking at her wrinkled visage in the mirror, “and your clothes finally suit you.” Yet her forced old age gives her the wisdom to appreciate the beauty of life around her, the antidote to her workaholic flip side. Howl is the dark hero, one minute kind and protective, the next minute self-centered and despairing. Until Sophie shows up, Howl has never had a reason to rise above his self-indulgent cowardice and answer the King’s summons to fight in the war. Ironically, it is Sophie’s arrival as an old crone that arouses the joy and adoration of the needful inhabitants, which forces her to face her own inability to recognize her feminine charms and accept love.

The allies and enemies are more than stereotypical fluffy cutesies and straight-up evil-doers. Calcifer, the fire demon who is forced to fuel the castle, lacks confidence and develops a bickering brother-sister friendship with Sophie. Markl, the wizard’s apprentice, at first begrudges “Grandma” Sophie’s presence but comes to depend on her like a son. The roly-poly wheezy dog has to be literally carried by Sophie out of and into trouble. The wicked Witch of the Waste is consumed with a trauma many of us can relate to—the inability to let go of a lost love. Each scene sparkles with sophisticated humor, and some of the lines are almost throwaway. While prepping Sophie for a dangerous mission, Howl says, “You’re wearing that hat? After I used all that magic to make your dress pretty?” All of this makes for a magical masterpiece.

Finally, the wonderful thing about this fairy tale is that although the characters are cursed, they learn that triumph comes from saving each other, and that conquering their internal demons is the ultimate battle.

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