Sophie doesn't think she's particularly beautiful and doesn't really see anything exciting happening in her future. As the eldest sister, she feels it's her duty to work in and take charge of her family's hat shop. One day, on her way to see her sister, she encounters a handsome young man who saves her from some creepily flirtatious soldiers. The young man, on the run from some blob-like creatures, flies himself and Sophie through the air and deposits Sophie safely at her sister's workplace. Although he is more than likely a wizard, and therefore potentially dangerous and likely to steal and even eat young women's hearts, Sophie can't help but feel a little dreamy over him.
Unfortunately, Sophie's encounter with the young man has brought her to the attention of the Witch of the Waste, who visits the hat shop and puts a curse on her that turns her into an old woman. Sophie begins a journey into the Waste to try to find someone who can break her curse, only to end up inside Howl's moving castle. Howl is a terrifying wizard with a reputation for eating beautiful young women's hearts. Sophie is a little afraid, but figures that someone like Howl wouldn't be interested in the heart of an old woman. Then she learns that Howl is the handsome young man she met while on the way to see her sister.
Sophie makes a bargain with Calcifer, the fire demon who powers Howl's castle. If Sophie can break the curse binding Calcifer and Howl together, Calcifer will break the curse on her. In the meantime, Sophie hires herself as Howl's new cleaning lady, taking it upon herself to clean Howl's entire home. Howl mostly takes this in a stride, and Sophie finds herself forming a new family with Howl, Calcifer, and Markl (Howl's young apprentice).
Unfortunately, the prince of the neighboring kingdom has gone missing, and war is becoming a more serious threat. Howl has been ordered to appear before the king and join the war.
I saw this movie several times prior to reading the book. It's been so long since I last read the book (although I recently started rereading) that all I can really remember about it is that it's pretty different from this movie. So, if you're looking for the perspective of someone who read and enjoyed the book first, you should probably look elsewhere.
I've seen several of director Hayao Miyazaki's films, and, while I don't think this is the worst of them (and Miyazaki's "worst" is still pretty good), it's definitely not as good as some of his others. For those who are new to Miyazaki's works, I'd recommend starting with My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, or Princess Mononoke first (note to parents: Princess Mononoke might not be a good choice if you have small children, as there are some scary/violent moments).
One of my favorite things about Howl's Moving Castle is the setting. Howl's “castle” is really more of a wild monstrosity on legs, and it's awesome. I can imagine him and Calcifer adding bits and pieces onto it over the years, in complete disregard of aesthetics or gravity. The front door leads to different locations, depending on which color you set the door's dial to – Howl, being something of a coward, hides behind several aliases, each of which has a shop in a different town, and his dial colors correspond to the doors of those shops and a couple other places. There's a fun scene in which Sophie gleefully tries out the different dial colors. I have to admit that, in her position, I probably would have done the same thing.
The movie has several memorable characters, Sophie being on the top of that list. Although you wouldn't be able to tell from either the container art or the description on the back of the container, Sophie spends a good chunk (most?) of the movie as an old woman. She starts off as a very old, painfully stooped old woman and gradually becomes hardier and younger. At the beginning of the movie, young Sophie was stuck in a rut, taking care of her family's shop because she felt it was expected of her and because the shop was important to her father. In a way, becoming old freed her and finally allowed her to start living her life as she wanted to. While cleaning up Howl's home, she manages to create a new family for herself with Howl, Calcifer, Markl, and even Turniphead (a magical scarecrow with a turnip for a head).
Howl starts off as charming, dashing, handsome, and not much else. It's not until later in the film that viewers learn a little bit more about what he and his life are like. This brings me to some of my problems with this movie, and why I think it's not one of Miyazaki's better efforts. The movie barely scratches the surface of Howl's character. We learn that his childhood was probably very lonely and that he's always been a little afraid of the Wizard Suliman, his former teacher. He doesn't want to fight in the war because he knows innocents always get hurt, so he does his best to sabotage the efforts of wizards on both sides. Even that takes a toll on him, though, as it becomes harder and harder for him to maintain his humanity. While there is good in him, he can also be very shallow, vain, and cowardly.
I don't know that I would have had any problems with Howl as a character if it hadn't been for the romantic subplot. Well before Sophie learns anything about Howl's past, seconds after she has learned a little about what could happen to Howl if he allowed himself to come under Suliman's control, Suliman notes that Sophie is in love with Howl, and there is evidence that Suliman is right. I thought it was too early for Sophie to feel anything but affection for Howl and, unfortunately, this colored my opinion of any future declarations of love on Sophie's part.
There was so much in this movie that I felt could have used further explanation/attention. I would have loved to see more of Howl's childhood. Also, I might have believed in Sophie and Howl's romance more if Howl and Sophie had spent more time together, but I think more of Sophie's pleasant domestic scenes featured Markl and Calcifer than Howl (unless the scenes with Calcifer were supposed to double as scenes with Howl, what with Howl and Calcifer's connection??). The bit near the end, when the prince and Suliman mentioned stopping the war, seemed incredibly naive to me – after all the destruction shown earlier in the movie, it was hard to believe that, just like that, the word of two people could stop everything.
Despite my problems with the movie, it was still fun to watch and re-watch. I've seen it both with the English dub turned on and in the original Japanese (with English subtitles). I think the translation in the English dub is smoother and easier to understand (a note to purists: the dub adds some information and changes the meanings of a few lines, just judging by comparisons with the English subtitles). While I liked Christian Bale's voice, something about it didn't quite fit with Howl. I enjoyed English dub Sophie, both young and old – I should note that, in Japanese, Sophie is voiced by only one person, so young and old Sophie's voices “match” more in Japanese than in English. I found Calcifer to be less annoying in Japanese – I don't know whether it was Billy Crystal's voice I disliked, or just the cheesy lines in the English dub (Sophie saying “You've got a lot of spark!” to a fire demon). Veterans fans of English dubbed anime may notice that Crispin Freeman does the voice of the prince – since I consider him a big name in anime voice acting, it was a little odd to hear him voicing such a small part, but I guess that's what happens when Disney handles the voice actor casting.
My grade for Howl's Moving Castle: C+/B-. This was a tough one to grade. The movie looks good, the characters are mostly enjoyable, and I liked everything enough to re-watch it all a few times. There are a few scenes I absolutely love, like the first scene with Howl, the bit from Howl's childhood, and pretty much anything showing Howl's castle in motion. However, when I think about giving the movie a higher grade, I keep coming back to all the things that could/should have been explored in more depth. It just felt like there were elements missing from the story.
Most of the extras are on Disc 1. My favorites are "Behind the Microphone" and the interview with Pete Doctor.
"Behind the Microphone" showed the main English VAs at work, and a few of them commented on the movie and the characters they voiced. The most conspicuous absence was Christian Bale. Although he was shown at work, I think he was the only person who didn't get to make even a brief comment.
I wasn't quite sure who Pete Doctor was, but, judging from some of his comments, it sounds like he was involved in translating the movie into English. His interview was enjoyable mainly because his love for the movie was so infectious.
Disc 1 also has a brief video of Hayao Miyazaki visiting Pixar Animation Studios, gifting John Lasseter with a Cat Bus head (you need to be familiar with My Neighbor Totoro in order to understand this bit), and attending the premier of the English dub version of Howl's Moving Castle. Then there's an interview with John Lasseter, in which he gushes about Miyazaki and Howl's Moving Castle and its English dub. For some reason, I found most of this video to be just a tad awkward, but others may like it.
Last on Disc 1 is a whole bunch of Japanese TV spots and trailers for Howl's Moving Castle. The trailers have a tendency to focus on the romance aspect of the movie ("The heroine is a 90-year-old girl. Her sweetheart is a wimpy wizard. They live together in Howl's Moving Castle.").
Disc 2 has the entire movie in storyboard form, with sound from the finished film whenever possible. These kinds of things don't particularly interest me, especially not enough to spend 2 hours watching it. I only watched a few minutes.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Ella Enchanted (book) by Gail Carson Levine - Another story in which the heroine is cursed - in this case, she's cursed with obedience. Anything anyone tells her, she must do. There's fantasy and a bit of romance. A live action movie adaptation exists, but, from what I remember, it's different from the book and not nearly as good.
- Fairest (book) by Gail Carson Levine - Yes, two books by the same author in one list. Sorry about that, but Levine really does seem to be a good match. In this book, the heroine, who has an amazing singing voice, feels very self-conscious about her ugly appearance. Those who'd like another fantasy story with a bit of romance might want to try this. I recently wrote about the audio book version.
- Another Studio Ghibli film - There are many good ones to choose from. My favorite is Spirited Away (the bathhouse is awesome, and I think Miyazaki's pacing is more suited to developing the friendship in Spirited Away than the romance in Howl's Moving Castle), but My Neighbor Totoro is a close second. Whisper of the Heart is also good, but, if I remember correctly, not so much a fantasy story.
- Castle in the Air (book) by Diana Wynne Jones - First, read DWJ's Howl's Moving Castle, then read this, the sequel. I had no idea there even was a sequel, but then I've only ever read, I think, two of her books. I'm currently re-reading Howl's Moving Castle and will see about hunting down this book when I'm done.
- Leviathan (book) by Scott Westerfeld - I haven't read this yet, but it's on my TBR list. It's a YA steampunk story set just before the beginning of an alternate history World War I. The main character is a girl who's pretending to be a boy. Those who were as fascinated by Howl's castle as I was may want to try this.