Howl’s Moving Castle Review

Classification: U Director: Hayao Miyazaki Rating: 4/5

Sophie Hatter (Mortimer) is a put-upon, over-worked milliner. Though the hat shop was left to the whole family when her father died, she is the only one putting in the hours. One evening, the town is aflutter with the news that Wizard Howl’s (Bale) castle has been seen (Howl’s castle has legs and wanders through the countryside popping up hither and thither). Howl is a legendary seducer of women and is rumoured to eat the pretty ones’ hearts. Sophie, who has no personal vanity and is deeply insecure, is sure that she will be safe, and heads out to visit her sister Letty (Malone) in the baker shop where she works.

War is brewing and the streets are full of soldiers, a couple of whom accost the bewildered Sophie; she is rescued by a mysterious stranger who teaches her how to fly before floating her down to Letty’s balcony. Dazed, and still walking on air, Sophie returns to the shop. She is followed in by a strange woman who, when Sophie asks, and then tells, her to leave, reveals herself to be the Witch of the Waste (Bacall), and places a curse on Sophie, who wakes up in the morning to find that she is 90-years old. So Old Sophie (Simmons) sets off into the Waste to find a cure; aided by a helpful enchanted scarecrow, she finds herself at the moving castle, where she meets Howl’s apprentice Markl (Hutcherson), and his fire demon Calcifer (Crystal). Howl’s castle is a typical bachelor pad, and Sophie sets to work with a will. By the time Howl returns the place is sparkling.

Howl accepts Sophie’s presence with equanimity – he has other things on his mind, like the war (which he has sworn to help fight), and the fact that Sophie’s cleaning has messed with his hair dyeing spells. He is also on the run from the Witch of the Waste who wants to possess his heart. Will Howl learn to see through Sophie’s curse, and grow up? Can Sophie help to restore Howl’s humanity and break the curse before the Witch or the war – or both – catch up with them?

Omedetou gozaimasu, Miyazaki-san! (Or, congratulations Mr Miyazaki!) Oscar-winning Miyazaki and his team of crazy geniuses at world-renowned Studio Ghibli have once again produced an animated film of joy and beauty. Based on the novel by our very own Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is a worthy successor to Spirited Away.

The only animation studio that can rival Ghibli for inventiveness is Pixar and the bar, set so high after The Incredibles, has been raised again. The castle is not at all as I imagined it, but it’s fantastic; fabulously organic, like a cross between a chicken and a fish and Babapapa’s house. Flying and flying machines are beloved by Miyazaki and he outdoes himself here – Howl is transformed into a monstrous bird; there are epic dog fights and surreal planes and dirigibles and missiles and evil flying magicians galore. But the film never forgets about the details – the ribbon on Sophie’s ugly hat; Calcifer’s eyes; the small, silent dog that adopts them.

The English language cast are great and I was very pleased that many are British – Howl in Diana Wynne Jones’ novel is actually Welshman Howell Jenkins, and there is a scene in the book where they come into our world. This and many other elements of the story have been cut, as it would be far too complicated. The film concentrates on ending the war and finding Howl’s heart, and is true to its source in that Howl is a vain, shallow, capricious prat, obsessed with appearances, while Sophie at eighteen is timid and self-effacing. 90-year-old Sophie realises she has nothing to lose, and becomes tougher, while Howl becomes more sympathetic; as with Spirited Away there isn’t really a villain – even the Witch of the Waste has her good side.

My only caveat about Howl’s Moving Castle is that it’s not really for very young children. The story may be too complex and its two-hour running time a strain on tiny bladders. But for everyone else – a treat.

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