Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

Written by Liam Hall

In Howl’s Moving Castle master director Hayao Miyazaki has created a film that, like his previous works, transcends the perceptions and expectations of what animation is capable of. One born of pure, spectacular imagination and wonder paired with a political dark edge.

The story takes place in a beautiful European-like landscape which takes clear influence from rural France and Italy as well as architectural flavours from more Nordic/Scandinavian countries. Sophie comes across the very charming and mysterious wizard Howl who accompanies her on a visit to her sister Lottie. Later in the evening Sophie visited by the wicked Witch of the Waste who turns her into a ninety-year-old woman. From there Sophie bravely ventures out of the town she has known her entire life, in the hope of breaking the spell.

From there she meets an array of ridiculous and colourful characters like Turnip-head, a sentient scarecrow, and Calcifer the fire spirit. Who in the english dub of the film is  voiced brilliantly by the incomparable Billy Crystal. It is admirable how good he is compared to the rest of the English voice cast. Although the job is adequately done, none of the cast can match the charisma and shine of Crystal.

One of the films most outstanding features is its breathtaking visuals with the previously mentioned beautiful European-inspired surroundings, accompanied by a beautiful and moving Joe Hisaishi score. This is in stark contrast to the horrifying visuals of war reminiscent of the scenes from Pink Floyd’s music video for ‘Goodbye Blue Sky.’

The film is an adaptation of the book series created by author Diana Wynne Jones although there are many thematic differences between the two. Whilst the book had on occasion made reference to an apparent forthcoming war, war is a very large and important aspect of the film. It is thought this is due in large part due to the USA’s controversial invasion of Iraq in 2003, an issue Miyazaki took issue with. Due to this, the film has a heavy anti-war sentiment. Despite this being a significant part of the film however, it never feels forced or overbearing.

It is perhaps this skill that makes Miyazaki such a skilled screenwriter and director. His messages and themes enhance every film he makes without ever over complicating the plot or affecting the character development. It’s a graceful ballet of simplicity yet also complexity. It is a story about love, family and old age whilst on the other hand is also about living through war, feminism and dealing with personal demons. It is so uncommon to having a story with an elderly lady as the lead protagonist especially one which is so empowered. It is truly a welcome sight.

The film is one that ranks highly in Miyazaki’s filmography, right up there with Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro as one of his most popular films. When compared to his other works, it is nowhere near as dark or violent as his 1997 fantasy action/adventure film Princess Mononoke or Grave of the Fireflies by his Studio Ghibli rival Isao Takahata. Yet it is not as light as traditional Pixar/Disney films. It deals with some very serious issues and perhaps some that children might have to deal with a some stage in their lives.

The rules of the world created sometimes aren’t always as clear or consistent as one might think.  As well as this, there are also some moments when the animation isn’t a smooth as it could be. However, neither of these aspects are able to detract from what is easily one of the best animation films of the 21st century. It manages to be light despite its heavy philosophies, and it is a joy to watch for people of all ages.

If you would like to watch the film, you can watch today (2nd of February) at the Falmouth Film Society’s screening on the Penryn Campus at 6pm.