Hayao Miyazaki, “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2005)
Up to and including “Spirited Away”, the animated films by Studio Ghibli are of a high standard both technically and in spirit. With “Howl’s Moving Castle”, the soulful quality of the earlier films that peaked with “Princess Mononoke” disappears and what we get is an empty shell of a story that exploits typical Studio Ghibli motifs and themes and the studio’s technical virtuosity. All the familiar devices of earlier films – a young female protagonist on the verge of adulthood, elderly women, a flawed hero with shamanic characteristics, heroes and villains manipulated by more powerful characters of uncertain quality, sophisticated flying technology in an alternative 19th-century steampunk world – are worked over in a fantasy aimed (cynically it seems to me) at a mainstream Western audience and the result looks very cheesy and manipulative with an ulterior message that superficially celebrates female bravery but channels it into socially restrictive roles.
The story’s heroine is a plain-jane working-class hat-maker called Sophie who accidentally meets a young wizard Howl and so arouses the jealousy of the Witch of the Waste who turns her into an old woman. Sophie runs away and meets a scarecrow called Turnip who takes her to Howl’s over-sized trailer-park home. Here she meets a fire demon called Calcifer and Howl’s child assistant Markl. Sophie insinuates herself into Calcifer, Markl and Howl’s lives by claiming to be a cleaning-woman and through her association with the unlikely trio, is drawn into a war between Howl’s country and an enemy realm missing its Crown Prince; during the film’s course the war also moves into Sophie’s country. Howl is forced to participate in this war at the cost of eventually losing his humanity through repeated transformations into a bird creature. Sophie comes to realise that Howl and the Witch of the Waste are pawns of more powerful forces, represented in part by Madame Suliman, the former mentor of Howl, and Sophie’s work for the rest of the film is cut out trying to locate Howl’s missing heart, the mysterious connection between Howl and Calcifer, ending the war and locating the missing Crown Prince.
Working out all the different strands of the film and connecting them together might take viewers 2 – 3 viewings which would expose them to an excess of saccharine musical schmaltz and a deadly “love conquers all” radiation cloud in the tradition of Beauty-and-the-Beast stories. I think if I had to sit through this film again, my hair and teeth will start falling out, my skin will break out into ulcers and bruises will mysteriously appear and spread. Characters are poorly developed and the love Sophie feels for the feckless Howl is so unbelievable as to be laughable; she would have been better off taking her chances with Turnip who performs a noble act of voluntary self-sacrifice in comparison with Howl who fights because he is compelled to, not out of free will.
The war merely forms a backdrop to the events and all the various characters can do is try to stop it without understanding anything about the lead-up to it and why Suliman forces Howl to do her dirty work; or participate in it. Even the animation of the war and its participants looks like a cut-and-paste job of previous Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films like “Nausicaa of the Valley of Winds”, “Porcorosso”, “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” and “Princess Mononoke”: several flying machines look like those giant bug monsters of “Nausicaa …” with wing-flaps added as an afterthought. Backgrounds are visually gorgeous at first but turn out to be generic according to the role they have to play so, for example, town scenes have a dreamy alternative-universe quality similar to scenes in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” which takes place in a similar alternative 1950s universe that might well follow on in the future from “Howl’s Moving Castle”.
The film is too long and its story is too intricate to work as a family film, the characters are shallow and implausible, the animation is cynically overwhelming and unoriginal. Worst of all is the film’s message about what happens to girls eventually: they get to play brave heroines for a brief while and once they are adults, they can be either beautiful scheming bitches like Suliman or domestic-goddess workaholics like the geriatric Sophie slaving away for love. Issues like the nature of war – Miyazaki made the movie partly in protest at the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – are sidelined so much that all the eye-blinking in the world couldn’t make them more missed. No way in the world would I recommend this film for families with young daughters. I feel so cheated having seen it.