One of the few anime films to make it into UK cinemas, Howl’s Moving Castle tells the tale of Sophie, a young woman working at her family’s hat shop. Despite not having a great deal of self-confidence, Sophie nonetheless has the guts to stand up to the Witch of the Waste, a move which ends in disaster when Sophie is inflicted with a curse that turns her into an old woman.
Obviously unable to stay at home in her new form, Sophie bravely heads off to the wastes in search of a way to lift the curse. There, with the help of a turnip-headed scarecrow and a cunning suited to a real grandma, she manages to gain entrance to Howl’s Moving Castle, the home of the notorious wizard Howl, his apprentice Markl and fire demon Calcifer. In short order, Sophie installs herself as the castle’s much-needed cleaning lady, all the while alert for a way to help Howl and Calcifer break free of their own curse- in the hope that they in turn might be able to help her.
The theme of a young girl being strengthened through difficult circumstances will no doubt be recognisable to those who have sampled Miyazaki’s earlier works, and indeed, there are more than a few elements that will put you in mind of Spirited Away, among others. That being said, Howl’s Moving Castle is a solid film in its own right, and these touches are more interesting to note than they are detrimental to the story.
Familiarity aside, there is plenty to like about the film. The story presents a well meshed combination of the serious and the light-hearted, from the grave backdrop of a destructive war between neighbouring kingdoms, to a humorous moment when Howl believes his life is ruined because his beloved hair dye has been lost in Sophie’s clean-up.
Character-wise, having an older person take centre stage makes for a change from the norm, and it is with interest that we see Sophie adapt (admittedly rather well) to her drastically altered situation. The other characters, from the vain and sometimes cowardly Howl, to the smart-mouthed Calcifer, are generally portrayed well, although as you might expect there isn’t great deal of character development within the span of a two-hour movie.
Without giving any specifics away, it has to be said that the film flounders in its closing segments. Towards the end, it becomes unclear how certain plot threads are going to be wrapped up, and it is at this point that the pace picks up considerably, sacrificing a measure of coherency in order to achieve the desired outcome. No doubt a few repeated viewings, combined with some mental leaps by the viewers, would help it to come together a little better, but the ending sadly detracts from the film as a whole.
As you would expect from a Ghibli film, the animation is nothing short of spectacular, with an attention to detail well suited to the big screen. Whilst the beauty of the film will be apparent from the beginning, once again additional viewings will be required to soak in all the specifics. The soundtrack, whilst nothing special on its own, complements the storyline and visuals nicely, making for a well-rounded presentation overall.
Despite being let down by a weaker ending, Howl’s Moving Castle is nonetheless a solid and entertaining film that should appeal to viewers of all ages. It may feel a touch familiar in places, but when a film is presented this well, it becomes none the less enjoyable for it.