I don’t envy Hayao Miyazaki for having to follow up a film like “Spirited Away.” For inspiration, the Japanese animator turned to Diane Wynne Jones’ book “Howl’s Moving Castle” and adapted it into an animated adventure. By many accounts Howl is a great film, but as a Miyazaki film it settles for being merely good.
Sophie is a lonely girl who works in a hat shop when she comes across the mysterious and majestic wizard Howl. When Sophie is transformed into an old woman by the jealous Witch of the Waste, she tracks down Howl and his magnificent magic walking castle in the hopes of getting the spell reversed. Meanwhile, the kingdom is at war and the king is recruiting witches and wizards to fight.
Several things stand out in this movie. Howl’s castle is a wondrous character unto itself, filled with portals to distant lands and the heart of the castle, the belligerent fire demon Calcifer. The castle is spectacularly animated, fitting right in with other Miyazaki locations like Yubaba’s bathhouse and Laputa, the floating city from “Castle in the Sky.”
The characters are some of Miyazaki’s strongest. Howl is just a fantastic protagonist, particularly because he’s so flawed. Despite his immense power, Howl is afraid of everything, and he’s also a bit of a brat, which is a refreshing change for Miyazaki male leads. This makes for an immensely likable and relatable hero. The same can be said for Sophie. It is her immense courage and good humor that encourage Howl to face his fears and his demons.
Several things, however, conspire to make this a lesser effort from the famed animator. The first is simply that it is an adaptation. Miyazaki’s original stories are so exhilarating because they are his; the source material here is fine, but it does leave the director tied to a story he must try to be reverent to. Don’t get me wrong, the film is still incredibly inventive, particularly in its visuals, but it doesn’t quite exude the same level of uninhibited creativity as some of his previous efforts.
Then there’s the plot and the message, both of which are overly complicated and muddled. The first half of the film, with its focus on its characters and humor (finally, another truly funny Miyazaki film), is excellent, but as the plot thickens, the air begins to deflate. There’s some kind of war going on that isn’t explained very well, and the bland villain Madame Suliman, who has her own rather confounding reasons for recruiting witches and wizards for war. Also, a fantastic and mysterious character like Howl deserves a good back story, but when it comes its underwhelming and downright confusing. In terms of a message, Miyazaki seems to be making some kind of statement on pacifism, but it’s hard to get a message through when we don’t really know what everyone’s fighting about in the first place. Miyazaki films are known for their narrative simplicity and simple, clear yet powerful messages. “Howl’s Moving Castle” breaks rank in these regards.
I like “Howl’s Moving Castle.” The visuals and music are typically top-notch, and the characters are absolutely wonderful. But the story surrounding it all is a disappointment. Even a lesser Miyazaki film is better than 90 percent of anything else out there, but, by the standards of what has come before it, it is just an okay film from the master animator. It’s worth seeing, but don’t expect another “Spirited Away.”
Well, that wraps up Miyazaki May! I hope you’ve enjoyed and that I’ve encouraged you to check out some more films from my favorite of all filmmakers. It’s been a blast!
*Note: I stuck to films that Hayao Miyazaki directed, and avoided the studio Ghibli films he wrote or produced but did not direct. With that in mind, these are the films I did not get to this time around:
“Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Ponyo,” “Porco Rosso”