When Spells Spell Trouble

“Howl’s Moving Castle” tells the tale of a young hat maker named Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer). Innocently, she gets involved with a wizard named Howl (voiced by Christian Bale), as he’s trying to escape from the Witch of Waste’s amorphous henchmen. They both successfully flee by walking on air. However, when she and Howl separate, the Witch (voiced by Lauren Bacall) tracks her down. She puts Sophie under a curse – turning the young hat maker turns into an old woman (voiced by Jean Simmons) and is unable to say a word about it to anyone. To reverse the curse, Sophie searches for Howl. She ends up in his moving castle and meeting two of its inhabitants: a fire demon named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal) and a boy apprentice named Markl (voiced by Josh Hutcherson). Now, I’d want to divulge more of the plot but I’m under the spell of not sharing any further.

My watching of “Howl’s Moving Castle” might be a step back to 2-D animation but it’s also a step up in imagination. This is thanks to Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary animator who’s also responsible for the glorious “Spirited Away.” As with all his films I’ve seen, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is brimming with imagination. Here’s a world populated by wizards, witches, demons, and people. And in this imagined world, there are magical items such as a door that can lead to different locations. Whoa. Then there’s the impressive moving castle itself. It’s old, rickety, and constructed from junk. But the castle has its own personality, which what makes the structure so eeriely beautiful. The whole world that Miyazaki creates here is something one never quite sees in animated films or in any films at all.

As for the characters, they aren’t always what they seem. I always found myself intrigued because most of them are troubled under curses and spells. Sophie’s situation, in particular, proved to be a fascinating piece of storytelling. The idea that you become old right away is really heartbreaking. I’ve seen this idea used as a stunt in a Hollywood thriller (coughskeletonkeycough!), but “Howl” richly explores the scenario. However, the movie’s plot proved to be somewhat convoluted and vague. There are moments when Sophie looks young again, without any discernable clue as to how she managed to transform. Even the character Howl is ineptly written. There’s a rule in writing that it’s better to show than tell. In the case of Howl, the movie doesn’t show him for what we are told he is. By the end, my reaction is “wha?!” As a result, the movie’s theme about the heart and beauty comes across unclear. I don’t want Miyazaki to dumb down the story for me. I just wanted a more lucid storytelling. While its premise was great, “Howl’s Moving Castle” could have been more moving if it weren’t so stuck in ambiguity.

Grade: B+

Featuring the Voices of
Christian Bale, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Emily Mortimer, Josh Hutcherson, and Billy Crystal
Based on the novel by
Diana Wynne Jones
Screenplay by
Hayao Miyazaki
Directed by
Hayao Miyazaki
Rated PG for frightening images
and brief mild language