I admit to being utterly bewitched by this. Hayao Miyazaki is my favourite storyteller of all time. His Oscar-winning Spirited Away is one rare gem, while this, Howl’s Moving Castle, offers an entirely different picture: this is a dance through a tale of melancholy, youth and age, truth and the impossible.
I’ll be assessing this adaption of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel having seen the English dub. Young Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), who works in a hat shop, has a spell cast on her by the Wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) that turns her into a old lady (Jean Simmons). Scared and baffled by her transformation, Sophie runs away. The Wizard of Oz touch lands with the helpful scarecrow she finds in the fields, while its the Notre Dame vibe that brings about Sophie’s sanctuary: her befriending of fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal) and Howl (Christian Bale), the troubled wizard who is as scared as Sophie of the world beyond him. Howl has refused to fight in a war raging across the kingdom. As these misfits fend off endless attacks, Sophie falls in love with Howl, even though she could easily be his great-grandmother.
I remember showing my own grandma Howl’s Moving Castle, unable to place what kind of film it is while we watched it together. There’s no commercial pang, nor a racy speed that pulls your emotions in a number of directions. Really, this piece is just a sublime little mystery, travelling across and around, eschewing traditional storytelling and prioritising character focus and emotional coherence.
The castle itself regenerates from being a wheezing contraption to a splendid magic-cave-turned-armour. This metamorphosis seems to hint redemption is possible for some of the evil characters fighting the castle, and it’s a bold argument the story dwells on at several points.
Warfare is the central theme, though. “No war is a just war,” says one of his characters. “You reek of flesh and steel,” complains Sophie to Howl. The possibility of annihilation hangs over these characters who you’ll grow to love by the end. The most visually spectacular scenes land when the screen is just a blaze of crimson tides awash like the blood of martyrs. It rings of rage, perhaps talking to the global wars of today.
Finally, I’d say this film is pretty much perfect. A seductively alluring half-dream, it sticks to its directors vision always and never patronises its younger audiences. It teaches us empathy and the ability to imagine, constantly asking you to immerse into the waters of its morality. Howl’s Moving Castle is vibrant and intelligent, but ultimately it’s just lovely. I found it enchanting.