Tour de Miyazaki: Howl’s Moving Castle
Released: 2004 (Japan), 2005 (United States)
Brief Synopsis: Based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones, a young woman living in a world at war is put under a curse and learns to adjust after moving in with a powerful wizard.
Themes: The two big themes in this movie are pacifism and vanity. Miyazaki had just started planning this film when the United States started its second war with Iraq. The world the characters inhabit is engaged in a terrible war, the reasons for which are never fully explained (but hinted at), while the effects reach far and wide. When the wizard Howl is called upon to lend his magic to the war effort, he refuses, first because he is a coward, but as he begins developing feelings for the people around him, he realizes that the war needs to end, not just for his own sake, but so that the people he cares about will be safe. His initial cowardice also ties in with the vanity theme; Howl is obsessed with his appearance, and he flies off the handle when he thinks it has been sullied. Meanwhile, Sophie, the cursed protagonist, goes through life thinking she is ugly, and has low self-esteem as a result. The curse places the young woman in the body of an elderly woman, and she begins to think that beauty is no longer a concern of hers. As the burden of needing to look good is lifted, so are her spirits and her esteem.
Animation: As always, the images are breathtaking. The world of the film has a steampunk aesthetic, with tanks, airships, and old cars alongside architecture and fashion from the Victorian era. The titular moving castle is also a spectacle of ugliness, comprised of multiple different parts made up to form an animal-like whole that has a definite charm despite its ugly patchwork appearance.
Sub vs. Dub: This is another tough one, as each language track has its merits. The Japanese track explains a little more about the war, Howl’s past, and other elements of the story. It’s still possible to follow the events and characters in English, but things feel more fleshed out in Japanese. On the other hand, most of the English voice actors suit their characters more than their Japanese counterparts. I love listening to Emily Mortimer speak, and she and Jean Simmons seem like the perfect matches for young and old Sophie, respectively. Christian Bale gives an air of mysteriousness to Howl. Billy Crystal is a good enough fit for fire demon Calcifer; I think there could be better voices, but he is definitely as good or better than his Japanese counterpart.
Verdict: This is another one of the top tier films made by Miyazaki and Ghibli. Some of the sequences, especially the battles and some of Howl’s transformations, are a bit scary for younger kids, and it takes things pretty seriously, so this may not be a good film for younger viewers. But it will delight and terrify all others.