Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) Review

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Studio Ghibli is no doubt the “Feel good” studio. Almost all of their films are awe-inspiring fantasies or small stories that remind you of the good things in life and give a warm feeling inside. Now this is nothing new of me to say or for anyone to say for that matter, but it bears repeating because even with one of their most controversial works, Howl’s Moving Castle, I still get that Ghibli charm I just can’t get anywhere else.

Howl’s Moving Castle is the fantastical tale of hatter Sophie who after being saved by the mysterious wizard Howl gets cursed by his nemesis The Witch of the Wastes. The spell manifests itself by aging her tremendously and she decides to travel to Howl’s moving castle to see if she can get turned back. There she meets an annoying fire demon, a child apprentice and, of course, the mysterious and childish Howl. Sophie and Howl soon develop a romance, but their love seems in jeopardy as the country’s war escalates further and Howls involvement and demise seem inevitable.

Howl’s Moving Castle‘s quality is contested by fans because while it’s a good movie… it’s really not as good as other Ghibli works. At least thats my theory, and there’s evidence to back it up. Howl’s has strong characters, animation, and sound, far above most animated features, but it’s convoluted story weighs it down for people and prevents it from hitting that Ghibli standard.

I absolutely love the characters in Howl’s. It takes a while for you to get invested in them, but once they start acting as a family you can’t help but feel attached to them and really appreciate not only the individuals, but the cast as a whole. Even Billy Crystal’s Calcifer the fire demon, who’s pretty annoying for a good chunk of the movie has a hint of charm to him at the end of the movie. The aging dog that enters in the second half and the speechless scarecrow Turniphead both have a distinct personality despite a lack of lines and screen time. There’s just something about this ensemble and their chemistry that works for me and makes me want to see more.

The animation… do I even have to say it? It’s fucking gorgeous. It’s Ghibli and Miyazaki for christ’s sake. Everything from the character designs, backgrounds, and animation itself is high quality and meshes well. I really liked the design of the castle itself and it added a steampunk element that fit in this magic/science world. There are moments where you can tell that the animation jumps in quality so for an anime junkie who will notice that kind of thing it’s rather jarring, but for the average viewer it’s sure to not be a problem.

The soundtrack is standard Ghibli fare and rather unnoticeable which I guess means it did it’s job, but what I really want to talk about it the dub. I love the casting choices for the Disney dub and it’s probably one of the best out there. For the most part it’s unknown actors, but there a few celebrities in this cast. Christian Bale plays Howl and he does a fantastic job. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull of the more boyish aspects of the character, but he did and admirably at that. It’s a character archetype in Japan that has no real translation in the West and changes were made so if you’re a fierce loyalist to the original you may have problems with it. Billy Crystal, as I said before, plays Calcifer and does a fine job at that giving it that annoying touch without breaching into Jar-Jar territory. THE Lauren Bacall plays The Witch of the Wastes and she’s, of course, fantastic. She has this disney villainess quality about her, but it really works in this context. The rest of the cast is great too, but if I had any gripes it’s that the actress that plays the young Sophie has an accent that doesn’t match up with the speaking mannerisms of old Sophie and when they switch back and forth it’s quite distracting.

I suppose we should get to what doesn’t work… Howl’s Moving Castle is an extremely ambitious film in that it tries to juggle several different themes and plots. It unfortunately doesn’t succeed and the two aspects that end up suffering the most are the romance between Sophie and Howl and the war subplot. Now I understand the war subplots point of existing, that being to add a little tension and action to what would have been a rather quiet movie, but it could have been implemented better as it just pops in and out and there’s very little involvement or context with it. Sophie/Howl’s relationship gets pushed to the background while all this other stuff goes on and while you get a sense that their relationship is developing, there’s a lot of stuff I wish we could have seen to clarify it. One other fatal flaw of this film is that towards the end of the movie the plot just… goes all over the place. I’m not entirely sure how half of it worked or even what happened as the film tries to cram a lot into the last half hour and it doesn’t really take the time to explain properly. Everything’s jumbled and messy until the last two minutes where everything’s tied up in a neat bow, with too much convenience for my tastes.

I’ve said this about a lot of movies lately, but Howl’s Moving Castle is a ton of fun. It’s got a great mix between dark and light content as well as just enough maturity to keep an adult engaged while still keeping that childhood innocence for kids to enjoy. I thoroughly enjoy the characters and concept, and while I know there’s story flaws, who cares? If you know what you’re getting into and you let yourself get taken away by the characters, the weird pacing and underdeveloped story won’t matter to you (as much). A rottentomatoes rating or my recommendation really doesn’t do this movie justice as this is one film where I truly believe you must form your own opinion about so please check it out.

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