Today: April 20, 2024

Howl's Moving Castle

Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is a visually stunning piece of animation that delivers everything we have come to expect from a Hayao Miyazaki film including some rather questionable plotting.

Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is a
visually stunning piece of animation that delivers everything we have come to
expect from a Hayao Miyazaki film including some rather questionable plotting.

The film is set in what appears to
be a 19th Century Mitteleuropan nation state that is gripped by the
sort of patriotic fervour that usually accompanies a cataclysmic European war.
As flags flutter in the breeze and smartly dressed soldiers swagger about the
place looking manly, a young woman named Sophie finds herself caught up in a
confrontation between the handsome young wizard Howl (Christian Bale) and the grotesquely cougarish Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). Trapped in the magical
crossfire, Sophie (Emily Mortimer)
is transformed into a little old lady (Jean
Simmons
) forcing her to set off in search of Howl in the hope that he can
restore her youth. After wandering around the wastes, Sophie eventually runs
into Howl and sets herself up as the housekeeper of his magical steam-powered
moving castle. Once on-board the castle, Sophie makes friends with Howl’s apprentice
and his pet fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal)
before slowly falling in love with the elusive wizard himself. The reason why
Howl is so elusive is that all of his energies are being consumed by keeping
himself free of state control. Indeed, with a war in the offing, both sets of
governments are eager to enlist Howl to their cause but Howl is too selfish and
vain to feel even the slightest patriotic tug.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a
beautifully made and animated film. The cities glow with the kind of cosmopolitan
glee that you might expect from Weimar-era Germany but recognise from such
previous Miyazaki films as Kiki’s
Delivery Service
(1989) and Porco
Rosso
(1992) while the magic and technology that augment these cities
revisit and refine the airship-infested skies of Castle in the Sky (1986). Particularly impressive is the moving
castle itself whose gothic mechanism is made to shine in a fantastic sequence
in which Sophie explores the castle, cleaning as she goes. Also spectacular are
the epic magical set-pieces that infuse World War II imagery with a hand-drawn
weirdness that is both at odds with the rest of the animation in the film and a
complete thematic and visual masterstroke.

Now… if you are one of those upper
middle-class parents that have latched onto Miyazaki as a reliable source of
non-violent and morally uplifting children’s entertainment then Howl’s Moving
Castle is definitely the film for you. The animation, artwork and pacing are
more than enough to keep the little ones amused while their parents sit in
open-plan kitchens drawing up plans to take over a Tuscan bean farm or a gite
in the Dordogne. However, if you are a grown-up looking for grown-up ideas and
characters then Howl’s Moving Castle is a touch more problematic.

This film is overflowing with
evocative themes and ideas like the conflict between the state and the
individual, the role of selfishness in the pursuit of love and the duty we have
to accomplish as much as our talents will permit. The problem is that while
these themes are undeniably present in the film, Miyazaki seldom bothers to
engage with them at all. In fact, his entire approach to characters and their
motivations is somewhat hand-wavy, which is deeply unfortunate given that, deep
down, this is a film about love.

The problems begin with the
character designs for Sophie and Howl. Not particularly eye-catching to start
with, these designs are rendered even less memorable by Miyazaki’s decision to repeatedly
change the characters’ appearance throughout the film. Though brilliantly
executed (you simply do not notice Sophie getting younger until another
character draws attention to it) this device could have been quite emotionally
powerful if only Miyazaki had bothered to anchor the changes in the psychology
of the characters. However, because both Sophie and Howl are quite thinly
drawn, their moods and motivations are impossible to track. On both a visual
and dramatic level, the characters of Howl’s Moving Castle are an absolute
mess. This mess is particularly
evident when the film reaches its climax and attempts to draw on the rich
emotional bond that exists between the characters… but of course no such bond
exists. As a result of this failure to properly flesh out the characters, the
film ends with a completely impenetrable jaunt through a mystical dreamland
that somehow resolves all problems and saves the day. Repeatedly talking about ‘hearts’ and ‘love’ does not means
that your film is actually about either of those things.

Miyazaki’s tendency to gloss over
character motivations is possibly his only failing as a director. All the way
from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
(1984) to Ponyo (2008), his films
are far more eager to talk about deep passions than they are to actually
explore them or show them on screen, which is why Miyazaki’s most successful
films also tend to be quite dramatically simple. Howl’s Moving Castle is a
beautifully made and fascinating film but it also showcases many of the
director’s more infuriating tics.

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