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Howl’s Moving Castle Review

By Shawn McKenzie 06/10/2005

I think that the reason why I hate anime is that I can never understand it.  Hayao Miyazaki, the Oscar-winning writer/director of the 2002 Oscar-winning movie Spirited Away, wrote and directed this new “masterpiece,” Howl’s Moving Castle.  It was a huge hit in Japan, and now it has come to the United States.  It is also a big critical hit, but I won’t be one of those critics praising it.

This synopsis of the movie will have to be from my notes and research, because watching it by myself was too confusing (if you see the movie yourself and you can explain it to me, please email me.)  Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) is an 18-year-old girl who works in a hat shop at the edge of the Wasteland.  She is the eldest of three daughters, and if you thought that this was going to be a copy of Cinderella, you’d be wrong.  Sophie’s dad did die, but her stepmother Honey (voiced by Mari Devon) wants her to inherit the hat shop, which I guess she doesn’t like.  Sophie’s stepsisters, Lettie (voiced by Jena Malone) and Madge (voiced by Liliana Mumy), have been sent away to other places, with the former sister getting married.  One day while going to the market, she meets Howl (voiced by Christian Bale), a.k.a. Pendragon, a.k.a. Jenkins (he has many aliases), who follows her to avoid being detected by these goopy blob guys sent by Madame Suliman (voiced by Blythe Danner.)  He and Sophie succeed in avoiding them, but not before being noticed by the Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall.)  She becomes jealous of seeing Howl and Sophie together, so later that night, the Witch goes to Sophie’s shop and casts a spell on her, turning her into a 90-year-old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons.)  When she realizes that she can no longer remain an old lady, Sophie heads to the Wasteland to find Howl, hoping that he might be able to reverse the spell.  On her way to Howl’s castle, she meets a scarecrow named Turnip (voiced by Crispin Freeman, though he doesn’t talk until the end), whom she mistakenly thinks is a walking stick at first.  After freeing the upside-down Turnip, he follows her around like a puppy dog.  Sophie finally makes it to Howl’s castle, and it is a weird moving castle that looks like it was pieced together out of a junkyard.  She goes inside, and she meets two other people (well…one of them is not a person…but stay with me here.)  One of these two individuals is a little kid named Markl (voiced by Josh Hutcherson), who is Howl’s assistant and wears a cloak that makes him appear as a short, old wizard.  The other individual is a fire demon named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal) who powers the moving castle.  He is bound by contract to Howl for some reason, and he strikes a deal with Sophie.  He will find a way to make her young again if she can find a way to break his contract with Howl.  Neither of them are allowed to tell Howl or Markl about the deal, but since he is working with her, he helps Sophie impress Howl and Markl with her cooking and cleaning skills.  Howl hires her to be the castle’s housekeeper.  He knows that Sophie is under the Witch’s spell, but he doesn’t let on that he knows this, because he wants to whine about his responsibilities.  He has been ordered to fight alongside other wizards in a war that has been going on since the young prince of a nearby country vanished, but he doesn’t want to do it.  Sophie offers to pretend to be Howl’s mother and speak the King (voiced by Mark Silverman) on his behalf, which he accepts…and he will follow her in disguise.  On the way to the Royal Palace in Kingsbury, she is followed by a little old dog named Heen (voiced by Daijiro Harada), whom she assumes is Howl in disguise.  When she gets to the palace, she sees the Witch wanting to see the King as well.  During an amusing scene with the 90-year-old Sophie and the morbidly obese Witch racing to get to the top of the palace steps, they both meet the sorceress Madame Suliman.  She tells Sophie that Howl, a former tutor of Suliman, is not what he seems.  He has been using his powers for selfish reasons, so he is a jerk.  Suliman also strips the Witch of her powers and makes her older than Sophie.  Howl appears and rescues Sophie (he was disguised as the King and not as Heen.)  Despite Suliman’s warnings, Sophie finds herself falling in love with Howl.  At this point the movie is only half over (it is almost exactly two hours long…pretty long for an animated feature), and it starts to make no sense.  I wish I could explain the second half to you, but I didn’t get it myself.  All I know that it had to do something about seeing people for who they really are and loving them anyway…or something like that.

The visuals were amazing for a non-computer-animated movie.  When you saw the long shots of the castle moving, it was pretty cool.  It’s funny how anime continues to be visually stunning while incomprehensible at the same time.

The only characters that stood out were the Witch and Calcifer.  Both of them were funny and entertaining, and I don’t know if their Japanese vocal counterparts would have made them any less entertaining.

If you are fans of the original 1986 Diana Wynne Jones novel that the movie is loosely based on, I think that you might like it.  Jones herself said that they purposely changed some things around, but that she approved of the adaptation, even though she had no input into the making of it.

I will admit that, before Howl’s Moving Castle, I had seen only two other Miyazaki movies:  1998’s Kiki’s Delivery Service and 1999’s Princess Mononoke.  I remember seeing Kiki on the Disney Channel, and I felt it to be the first anime movie that I actually enjoyed.  When I saw Mononoke…that all went away.  It was confusing and weird, kind of like the second half of this movie.  I haven’t seen Spirited Away yet, but I hope that it is more like Kiki and less like Mononoke or Castle.  I have a theory as to why other critics always praise anime movies when they know in their hearts that they are confusing to watch:  they know that anime is the last refuge of traditional animation.  With computers being all the rage, they can’t let go.  I’m sorry, but if I have to give up a traditionally animated movie for a computer-animated one that actually makes sense, I will.  This movie will only appeal to Miyazaki fans, but I don’t think that anyone else will enjoy it (but I could be wrong.)


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