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HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE -- Retro Review

Makes Harry Potter's wizardry look like mail-order magic tricks.

Ghibli’s latest joint, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, is coming stateside soon. In anticipation of that, I figured it’d be fun to catch up on as many titles from the studio as I can, since I know my exposure’s woefully incomplete (to count, I’ve only watched PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, SPIRITED AWAY and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.)

Read my takes on MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE and PORCO ROSSO.

Well, I feel pretty stupid for missing out on this. No - - for consciously choosing not to see it.

See, while watching PRINCESS MONONOKE inside a cramped art house theater in ’98 was a mesmerizing experience - - truly one of the best I’ve ever had at the movies - - Miyazaki’s magic was rather brusquely shaken off when I saw SPIRITED AWAY. Whereas the former felt like being in an all-knowing magician's expert hands, the latter’s fantasia just dropped limply in the water for me. Dare I say, it was disenchanting enough that when this flick rolled around in ‘04, I decided I’d opt out.

Thankfully, one can never be “too late” for a movie. Thankfully.

HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE isn’t just another Ghibli gem; it’s quite possibly the best depiction of magic - - “true magic,” with its psycho-dramatic crisscross of symbols, sigils and doubling - - that I’ve ever seen on screen. It finds this hypnotic middle path, between the esotery of THE HOLY MOUNTAIN and the whimsy of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF OZ, that makes HARRY POTTER's wizardry look like party tricks out of a mail-order magic kit. As he does in his best work, Miyazaki binds the wildest dreams here with a firm sense of authenticity.

The flick follows Sophie, a young lady indolently continuing her father’s hatting business, as she falls into a housekeeping job at the infamous wizard Howl’s titular castle after the grotesque “Witch of the Waste” curses her to premature old age. The spell also has a clause, of sorts, which forbids her from telling anybody about what’s happened to her. Thus, she can’t let on to the handsome Howl, nor to his plucky young apprentice, nor even to his pet demon Calcifer, that she’s anything other than a kindly (if unusually spry) old woman.

If Sophie’s wise and wizened beyond her years, then the ageless and possibly immortal Howl is certainly the opposite. It’s lightly touched upon that his development’s arrested in both body and spirit, and he seems like the sort of charming, talented man-child so typical to episodes of BEHIND THE MUSIC. To wit, the thrust of the plot has him dodging a king’s request for an appointment about an ongoing war. He even sends Sophie to go pose as his mother and face down his old mentor, because he isn’t man enough to say “No” for himself.

Howl seems like Morpheus from Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN with more of a twinkle in his eye; or perhaps like LABYRINTH’s Goblin King, Jareth, in his early days. There’s even a clever gag - - very likely a jab at anime’s habit of Anglicizing Japanese characters' appearances - - where he accidentally turns his very Bowie-style blond 'do to a more natural jet black after Sophie's spring cleaning mixes up his shampoo.

One of the film's subtler “slights of hand” has Sophie’s age and appearance quietly shifting, hinting that these magi do actually perceive her as she really is and that, perhaps, her condition fluctuates according to inner maturation. It’s a brilliant metaphor to represent how, until the curse, she's been really living in her father’s time at the expense of her own. And the curse's inception really puts her into a sort of peril that’s actually far more visceral than the usual threat of violence. Honestly, it was unexpectedly upsetting to see this lively young girl be robbed of her youth in what’s essentially a snap of fingers.

Miyazaki truly has an under-appreciated talent to instill anxiety just as easily as wonder.

My gripe against KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE is that its plot's so thinly drawn, one can't help but entertain that its seemingly carefree fantasy is actually the escapist coping mechanism of someone working through some unseen real life trauma. HOWL’S similarly feels like a dream (or nightmare, at times) abstracting a girl's struggle with her responsibilities, her alternately advanced and stagnated maturity and, most of all, her boyfriend’s fickle nature.

You're almost expecting an OZ-style ending that reveals how this was all a dream while pulling back the curtain to reveal who Calcifer and the Witch of the Waste correspond to. Thankfully, there's no such cop out, but the notion does underline all the proceedings with a psychological symbolism deeper than that of most fantasies which simply dabble with this sort of magic.

Lest this review wax too rhapsodic, it’s worth noting that Miyazaki’s difficulty with tying up threads manifests a little. Sophie’s mother shows up a couple times (strangely unperturbed that her daughter’s been missing and that she’s magically turned into a crone) before ducking out of the movie and leaving her subplot rather idly unresolved. And I wasn't 100% clear about what exactly's going on in the climax when Sophie decides to wreck Howl’s castle while he's swooping around an air raid as a bird-man.

Well, I wasn’t 100% until I checked out the FAQ on the movie. After that, it was clearer.

Perhaps it’s a fumble of coherency that necessitates such “extracurricular” research, but I’ll give this the benefit of that old “You just need to watch it twice to really get it” excuse. Even as you only catch the gist of what’s going on, sometimes, the experience is still a worthwhile recreation of the dreamtime's swirl of emotions, anxieties, logic and "un-logic."

Whimsy comes second only to absurdist humor in respect to the proverbial varying of mileage. Just as with an Adult Swim show, you either like a particular stripe of fancy or you don’t. So I can't quite articulate why the magical hopping scarecrow who tags along with Sophie plays so much better than all the lil' little goblins in SPIRITED AWAY - - he just does. However, I can (and I'd say that I have, over the course of this review) articulate how HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE packs such substance under all its surrealism. It's simply mesmerizing.

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of HYBRID BASTARDS! & UNIMAGINABLE. Order them on Amazon here & here. Follow him on Twitter: @tompinchuk

ZombiePieon Jan. 27, 2012 at 4:11 p.m.

I know this is going to sound crazy but I think Howl's Moving Castle is a bad movie. The ending and the importance of the scarecrow are introduced suddenly and with no good build up effectively making it a Deus Ex Machina. The whole "war is bad" subtext of the film is so stunningly superficial I felt like I was watching a James Cameron movie. The movie is poorly told in jerks that lacks the fluidity of Miyazaki earlier works. The story also lacks a certain force and ends up being an animated travelogue of weird and wacky characters that never felt like the writers took the time and care to make them actual characters.

It's just a visually dizzying lifeless experience in my opinion that utterly disappointed me.

animebookworm7on Jan. 27, 2012 at 9:19 p.m.

Right on!!!

How rocks so hard!! i enjoyed this movie so much in fact i watched it yesterday. i love the magic, in fact if that doesn't make it number one alone i don't know what will. :)

WarlordPayneon Jan. 28, 2012 at 3:52 a.m.

I'm kind of the opposite. I loved Spirited Away and found Howl's Moving Castle to be pretty disappointing. Then again I didn't really care for Porco Rosso either so I guess our tastes just vary...except for Princess Mononoke, that movie was incredible.

Jeuston Jan. 28, 2012 at 4:18 a.m.

This is one of my favourite movies. Mostly because I do identify with the plot. ahah

asian_prideon Jan. 28, 2012 at 11:34 a.m.

@ZombiePie said:

I know this is going to sound crazy but I think Howl's Moving Castle is a bad movie. The ending and the importance of the scarecrow are introduced suddenly and with no good build up effectively making it a Deus Ex Machina. The whole "war is bad" subtext of the film is so stunningly superficial I felt like I was watching a James Cameron movie. The movie is poorly told in jerks that lacks the fluidity of Miyazaki earlier works. The story also lacks a certain force and ends up being an animated travelogue of weird and wacky characters that never felt like the writers took the time and care to make them actual characters.

It's just a visually dizzying lifeless experience in my opinion that utterly disappointed me.

This. The plot was all over the place that I didn't even fully understand what the hell was going on. But everything else, you said it best. I wouldn't call it that bad of a movie, but it's extremely disappointing in that regard.

Afroman269on Jan. 28, 2012 at 11:56 a.m.
@asian_pride

@ZombiePie said:

I know this is going to sound crazy but I think Howl's Moving Castle is a bad movie. The ending and the importance of the scarecrow are introduced suddenly and with no good build up effectively making it a Deus Ex Machina. The whole "war is bad" subtext of the film is so stunningly superficial I felt like I was watching a James Cameron movie. The movie is poorly told in jerks that lacks the fluidity of Miyazaki earlier works. The story also lacks a certain force and ends up being an animated travelogue of weird and wacky characters that never felt like the writers took the time and care to make them actual characters.

It's just a visually dizzying lifeless experience in my opinion that utterly disappointed me.

This. The plot was all over the place that I didn't even fully understand what the hell was going on. But everything else, you said it best. I wouldn't call it that bad of a movie, but it's extremely disappointing in that regard.

It's more of a movie that I enjoyed a lot more when I didn't pay much attention to the plot.

My main issue is that Sophie seems to be disconnected from the world around her. I would think that she would at least have a more dramatic reaction to being turned into an old lady.

When comparing Sophie to Chihiro, Chihiro is a stronger character because of how she matures over the course of the film and her reactions to the world around her is more believable. That's pretty much why Spirited Away is my favorite Ghibli film.
Fozimuthon Jan. 28, 2012 at 4:48 p.m.

I didn't really get a feel for this movie. The "wor is bad" was just weak, and even disrespectful in its depiction of war. Not everyone in a military uniform is raring to kill and/ or harass teenage girls, and hundreds of people probably died, but that's okay, because the "silly war" is over? I'm not expecting to have Grave of the Fireflies crammed in as a subplot, but war isn't something that just happens in the background between "bad people" and then ends.

The plot was all over the place, I didn't really catch anybody's motivations, the "Moving Castle" is really just two rooms. I wasn't exactly enthralled with this one.

viciousanchovyon Jan. 28, 2012 at 10:32 p.m.

@Afroman269 said:

@asian_pride

@ZombiePie said:

I know this is going to sound crazy but I think Howl's Moving Castle is a bad movie. The ending and the importance of the scarecrow are introduced suddenly and with no good build up effectively making it a Deus Ex Machina. The whole "war is bad" subtext of the film is so stunningly superficial I felt like I was watching a James Cameron movie. The movie is poorly told in jerks that lacks the fluidity of Miyazaki earlier works. The story also lacks a certain force and ends up being an animated travelogue of weird and wacky characters that never felt like the writers took the time and care to make them actual characters.

It's just a visually dizzying lifeless experience in my opinion that utterly disappointed me.

This. The plot was all over the place that I didn't even fully understand what the hell was going on. But everything else, you said it best. I wouldn't call it that bad of a movie, but it's extremely disappointing in that regard.

It's more of a movie that I enjoyed a lot more when I didn't pay much attention to the plot. My main issue is that Sophie seems to be disconnected from the world around her. I would think that she would at least have a more dramatic reaction to being turned into an old lady. When comparing Sophie to Chihiro, Chihiro is a stronger character because of how she matures over the course of the film and her reactions to the world around her is more believable. That's pretty much why Spirited Away is my favorite Ghibli film.

You all make understandable criticisms of the movie, but I'd like point out that some of the things you criticize were intentional (regardless of their efficacy). I'll start with Sophie's reaction to being an old lady. Sophie is indeed a weaker character than Chihiro; her lack of self-confidence is so great that she sees herself as powerless, hence her transformation into an old lady -- it offers her an excuse for resignation.

As for the "war is bad" subplot, I do vaguely remember Howl's expressing his distaste for war, but the other purpose of the war's presence in the story -- and the main purpose it serves in the book -- is that it's one of the many things Howl is afraid to face. Howl was afraid to face Madame Suliman, whose job it was to bully wizards into helping the king in his war efforts, until he met Sophie.

There is, however, little defense for the scarecrow's last-minute transformation if you view it as something of great importance. The book also had the change occur at the end, with scarcely any more hints than the movie gave. That said, the war was always secondary to the personal struggles Howl and Sophie had to go through. Both the book and the movie pay little attention to the return of the prince (no LotR) because neither Sophie nor Howl's chief fear had anything to do with the war; Sophie had to find meaning in life, and Howl had to learn to stand up for what he believed in.

While I thought the movie did good job of expressing those points, I don't deny that it didn't jump around a bit in some ways that could distract from the meaning behind things (why is the Witch of the Waste just tagging along now?) The book is much clearer in its transitions from scene to scene, and even the minor characters have a fair amount of development, so you may want to check it out. Also, the movie makes composite characters out of several of the minor ones in the book and changes the plot pretty substantially, so reading the book is almost a completely fresh experience.

Babylonian staff on Jan. 28, 2012 at 11:26 p.m.

First, getting the obvious thing out of the way: Tom, regarding your opinion on Spirited Away, you are out of your mind. Spirited Away is probably among the top 3 most atmospheric movies I've ever seen. It's one of the few films I'm literally always in the mood to watch, and everyone I've shown it to (young, old, male, female, anime fan, first-timer) has pretty much universally adored it. It's just so charming!

With that out of the way: I think you're spot-on about Howl's Moving Castle. I saw it for the first time over Christmas break, and even though (like a lot of the other commenters) I barely had any idea what was going on for most of it, I adored it. It's so whimsical and truly unpredictable in a way that few movies are, and I'd recommend it to pretty much anyone.

Spirited Away still comes out on top for me, though. Lunacy!

ZombiePieon Jan. 29, 2012 at 12:43 a.m.

@viciousanchovy: I read the book but I've always been of the opinion that movie adaptations should be assessed as a successful movie first and as a successful adaptation of the source material second. Many of the major plot devices in the movie don't work because what can be done in literature shouldn't be done in film. I don't care that the scarecrow is related to Japanese mythology, but if you don't build it up it comes across as lazy story telling.

Still I just can't help but feel like Howl's Moving Castle is so lifeless.

etragedyon Jan. 29, 2012 at 5:59 a.m.

Sorry, just noticed my brief review was posted over at Comic Vine - reposting it here and on Screened.

http://www.animevice.com/howls-moving-castle/13-425/user-reviews/?review_id=1103

RVonEon Jan. 29, 2012 at 6:29 a.m.

Spirited Away was disenchanting and you're still harping on Kiki's Delivery Service? Come on, man.

Also, the jab at Harry Potter was totally unnecessary and just comes off as a desperate attempt at trolling for hits (and also makes you come across as wholly uninformed). You know, like your review of Kiki's Delivery Service.

Supreme Marvelon Jan. 29, 2012 at 7:12 a.m.

I enjoyed Howl's Moving Castle more than I did Spirited Away. It's in my top 5 favourite animé films.

DCypheron Jan. 29, 2012 at 7:46 a.m.

I think this shows it divides opinion.

I love the movie, I mean, compared to like .. I don't know .. wow .. I'm struggling for universally awful here. Its not Dragonball Evolution.

Right; So that being the case, what we're really saying is that it's not as great as some of the other Ghibli movies. I don't think that, I think its different, part of the charm of Miyazakis movies is that he uses images as language to help focus you on subtler plot points. Like martial arts do in sword movies. In this, Howls Moving Castle, the actual piece is the house itself and the main character, really, is Calcifer.

In my mind it's like Howl has split his body and soul, leaving his real power behind to guard a normal life whilst he is forced to engage in war and politics because of his position as a strong Wizard.

It's not in my top 5 movies or my top 3 Ghibli titles but I do love lots of it and it's an amazing dub. Billy Crystal does a fantastic job.

zaldaron Jan. 29, 2012 at 10:29 a.m.

Don't have time to read all of the comments here today but wanted to say that I did review this over at thebanzaibeat.com and I generally agree with this review. I didn't give as much credit to the end as rob does here. To comment on the was aspect I don't get where people are having a problem with that at all. Yes it was an anti-war movie, if that in and of itself insults you then no need for you to read on. I thought the lines when they see a ship coming by and sophia asks "is it one of ours" and howl responds "does it matter?". Was incredibly perceptive. And yes for most people in the modern world especially in the first world countries war IS something that happens in the background and then goes away.

Anyway take a look at my review for another perspective.

SpikeSpiegel88on Jan. 29, 2012 at 12:21 p.m.

My favorite Ghibli film. It is beautifull, fantastical, wonderfull,whimsical, sad, fun, exciting.

I love the randomness of the stories progression, I love the glimpes of the horrors going on in the surrounding world setting up Howls darker side, music, voice acting...

But most of all.... That lake and that flowery field.. That is a place I often visit in my dreams..

I also have to say,thank you for finally saying what has been bugging me for ages. Spirited away is just not that good (when compaired to the other films), it was just missing something. (It is NOT a BAD film, just not as good as allot of the others and certainly overhyped.)

Brony506on Feb. 1, 2012 at 6:52 p.m.

This is my favorite Ghibli movie of all time.

No_name_here staff on Feb. 3, 2012 at 11:02 a.m.

@Babylonian said:

First, getting the obvious thing out of the way: Tom, regarding your opinion on Spirited Away, you are out of your mind. Spirited Away is probably among the top 3 most atmospheric movies I've ever seen. It's one of the few films I'm literally always in the mood to watch, and everyone I've shown it to (young, old, male, female, anime fan, first-timer) has pretty much universally adored it. It's just so charming!

With that out of the way: I think you're spot-on about Howl's Moving Castle. I saw it for the first time over Christmas break, and even though (like a lot of the other commenters) I barely had any idea what was going on for most of it, I adored it. It's so whimsical and truly unpredictable in a way that few movies are, and I'd recommend it to pretty much anyone.

Spirited Away still comes out on top for me, though. Lunacy!

Like I said, whimsy is the Super Saiyan of subjectivity. I saw SPIRITED AWAY 10 years ago with my Mom, walked out before the end and haven't thought on it since then. The Oscar that one got was definitely one of the real political "awarding you for previous movies" awards.

plyryakaon Feb. 8, 2012 at 1:39 p.m.

I'm really loving this series of retro reviews. May I recommend Pom Poko for you to check out, I'd be very interested to see what you make of my favourite film. If you liked the surreal/authentic balancing act Miyazaki does it is certainly the film that accomplishes it best

largeman29on Feb. 11, 2012 at 4:32 p.m.

Howl wasn't Sophie's boyfriend, and your reviews seem easily influenced by your mood at the time or strange expectations. The way you adore some and **** on others is really nonsensical from a reviewer's standpoint. I guess it should be made known that your 'reviews' are just the opinions and views of a random who doesn't really understand film or what most of these films are about and not an actual unbiased look at film.

Dig Deeper into Howl's Moving Castle

Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Waste and sets out to find a remedy, meeting handsome wizard Howl along the way.

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