Movie Review: Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle) (2004)

Yay! Of the Miyazaki films I’ve seen, Howl’s Moving Castle has remained my favourite. It transforms me back into the imaginative bookworm I was in grammar school, constantly losing myself in romantic and adventurous magical daydreams. Appropriate response, I suppose, since this is based on the young-adult fantasy book by Diana Wynne Jones that I still haven’t read (soon!). UPDATE: I read it, it was awesome.

The story is sort of complicated and several points are not explained well but everything else in the film easily makes up for this. The action unfolds in a steampunkian England- a world in which witches and wizards are common enough to be respected and feared, and war between kingdoms is brimming due to a missing prince. Reclusive, timid, young hat-maker Sophie mistakenly insults the powerful Witch of the Waste, who curses her into old age with no clue how to turn back and the inability to tell anyone what happened to her. She leaves her home and family, and eventually catches a ride in the Wizard Howl’s mobile, fire demon-powered castle, where she stays on as a housekeeper after striking a deal with the demon: she figures out a way to break the curse on him and Howl, and he’ll break her own old-age curse. Sophie quickly ingratiates herself with the house, Howl’s young assistant Markl, and the demon Calcifer.

Howl pops in and out of the castle’s magical door (leading to 4 separate locations so that he can keep it hidden), remaining kind but aloof and eventually proving to be surprisingly insecure. As a devoted pacifist, he refuses to answer the summons from the king to fight in the war, instead disguising himself and enlisting to Sophie go to the palace claiming to be his mother. She meets up with the Witch of the Waste, who has a vendetta against Howl but has been reduced to a powerless and fairly incapacitated state and so can’t remove Sophie’s curse. Soon Howl takes it upon himself to transform into a monster and defend his home, and Sophie takes it upon herself to save him as well as break the curse upon him and Calcifer. Love triumphs over all, there’s magic, etc.

Ok, so like I said, it’s oddly complicated, especially in written form. But it is easy to get caught up in it when you’re watching. The visuals are, of course, stunning, especially the landscapes and architecture/machine design. I wish I could dissect and reassemble that castle, so I could understand it and then live in it! I really dug the magic/steampunk combination. The story is really interesting and epic, while still full of those little endearing details Miyazaki injects into all of his films. I have read many comments talking about the film’s departure from the source novel, which apparently is much more in-depth and includes more characters and development. It’s understandable that drastic changes would frustrate fans of the book, and I look forward to reading it and having certain points more explained/expanded upon, but for me the overall effect of the movie is not altered with this knowledge. Miyazaki set out to combine Jones’ basic story and characters with his own visual sensibilities as well as certain contemporary influences such as the war in Iraq. And in this he did a wonderful job. There are flying machines and magical disguises, betrayals and schemes; a weak-willed man finds his heart and an unconfident but hard-headed woman finds courage. It’s all pretty great.

4.5/5

Extra Stuff:

Holy papercut Ben Millet has made an insanely detailed, meticulously crafted model of the castle out of paper. My god.

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