A woman must break a curse with the help of demigod, Howl.
For our ‘Ani-May’ series I chose the 2004 Hayao Miyazaki film Howl’s Moving Castle, my third favorite film of this eclectic anime auteur. Just as a disclaimer, I have seen this movie both in dubbed and subtitled form, and I personally enjoy the English dubbed version a bit more, as in any Miyazaki film, Disney always does a solid job with the voice cast to bring such imaginative films to the American cinema, and it gives me more time to admire the wonderful animation.
In this magical movie we follow Howl (Christian Bale, “Vice”, “Reign of Fire”), a demigod of sorts who wanders the lands with his trusty fire demon pal, Calcifer (Billy Crystal, “The Princess Bride”) in a steam propelled ‘castle’ this castle being a ramshack of houses and oddities slapped together with legs, it’s tragically beautiful. We also primarily follow Sophie (Emily Mortimer, “Shutter Island”), a homely woman, working at a hat shop owned by her parents, she is still searching for her self confidence when she gets whisked away by our titular hero Howl and his crazy moving castle, and she is set forth on an adventure that will change her life forever, one that includes witches, conspiracy, wars, and oozing black creatures, all set in the backdrop of a Victorian steampunk age.
It’s obvious that the animation is one of the highlights, as it has been for any movie Miyazaki has ever made, his craft is absolutely one of the best in the genre and it’s no surprise that he came out of retirement very quickly, when you love something you never really quit it, and it’s clear that Miyazaki loves telling heartfelt stories in an always eloquent and alluring way, it’s hard to stare away from the screen while watching his films, you get transported into his worlds and nuzzle yourself in for the journey, time doesn’t exist whilst watching a Hiayo Miyazaki film, it simply goes by without realization, only when the credits roll to you have to snap back to reality and that’s the sign of a truly gifted filmmaker.
I absolutely love steampunk, and unfortunately there’s just not enough films that really capture that aesthetic as fully as they should, such as last years ‘Mortal Engines’ which lacked magic, but luckily “Howl’s Moving Castle” has no shortage of fantastic steampunk imagery, from the steam powered cars, to massive bombing airships, every scene of this film is filled with gorgeous animation showcasing a thriving fantasy world. Miyazaki has always been able to bring his films from just mere animation to fully realized stories, full of immersion and narrative, he makes animation films for adults, with real morals and questions, all the while keeping it fun and action packed for the younger viewers. Although with that being said, the ending of this film is has just a bit too much cheese for me, it’s easily one of the most gagingly sentimental endings Miyazaki has done.
It’s hard not to see some similarities in the characters and story beats of this film and in ‘Spirited Away’ this coming only three years after the latter, with a headstrong female who doesn’t quite know her purpose yet, there’s an old evil woman, two comic relief characters in the form of animals, and an overall mission of showing the main hero who he really is, but that’s not to say this is a copy of ‘Spirited Away’ sure there are plenty of similarities, but with that each character has their own separate, and very different DNA than the characters in prior films, it’s never a carbon copy. Miyazaki simply takes a formula that isn’t broken and works his magic to make the same feel different, it’s really a remarkable talent, because throughout watching this film I recognized the story beats, but still found myself completely in love with this entirely different world, and as stated before each character brings something new to the story. And of course while there is some similarities, there’s many more differences other than just the world building. There’s a lot of subversion in this film that really makes the two hour runtime fly by, villains become allies, allies become enemies, there’s small twists and turns that take our heroes across the wonderful landscape, introduction new themes as the story unfolds, that of war and destruction, and ultimately peace and staying true to ones self.
Howl’s Moving Castle ranks with some of the finest works Hiayao Miyazaki has done, and that’s saying quite a bit because the man has some seriously fantastic films under his belt, almost anything he touches is gold. The astounding animation fully brings to life the booming steampunk world that the director as created, from the smoggy Victorian streets, to the steam powered vehicles roaming the city, it’s extremely aesthetically pleasing. It’s themes are often light enough for children to enjoy but it does delve into some darker themes that will appeal to older viewers, and the entertainment factor is for all ages, it’s a truly magical story with a great message, albeit with a rather overly mushy and sappy ending. Characters have always been a strong suit for the auteur, and while there are some similarities with these characters from other Miyazaki films, they still have their own personality and are never a clear copy of past characters, each bringing their own insight and humor to the story, they just follow a similar formula that strays away from being too familiar adding new set pieces (this one is action packed), twists and elements to make this a wholly original watch.
I give Howl’s Moving Castle 4.5 stars out of 5.
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