Skip to main content

Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #230: Howl's Moving Castle

Watching a lesser film by Hayao Miyazaki is like listening to the worst song by The Beatles: it’s not as good but it’s still The Beatles. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) has many of the Japanese master filmmaker’s trademarks, from the gorgeous hand-drawn animation to the magical creatures, and a strong female protagonist. Yet the story is not as enticing and one particular character comes off as underwhelming. On the plus side the titular castle looks great and it does do a lot of moving.

My first experiences with Miyazaki’s films were watching some of his best work at a film club at the University of Sherbrooke. I got around to seeing this one while looking for my first job after graduating from Sheridan College in 2011. In between jobs, low on cash, and staying at home in Quebec City, I was not spending a lot of money of movies. Good news for me, my brother buys as many movies as I do and he likes Japanese animation. He was very enthusiastic about it, saying the animation of Howl’s castle reminded him of the game Metal Slugs. Agreed, but if you are going to have good animation you should use it to sustain a good story.

The plot actually starts off as pretty straightforward, with eighteen-year-old Sophie (Emily Mortimer) being cursed by the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) for refusing to help her. The curse turns the young Sophie into a 90-year-old Sophie (Jean Simmons) who sets on a quest to find her old self again. Or is it her young self again? Either way, it’s a quest story and those are always filled with oddball characters. One of the first she meets is a cursed living scarecrow that hopes around the fields and takes her to the moving castle of Howl (Christian Bale) a powerful and mysterious wizard who may have the power to cure her.

Unfortunately this is where things get very muddled and complicated. Pretending to be a cleaning lady, Sophie begins to work in the castle and is offered a deal by Calcifer (Billy Crystal), the chirpy fire demon who provides the energy for the castle. If she helps him break his curse he will help him break her curse. Meanwhile, Howl the wizard is involved in a war with Sophie’s neighbouring country and often assumes different shapes or identities when he goes out on his missions. At one point Sophie thinks a dog might be Howl in disguise. Then the witch gets back in the picture with problems of her own.

Confused? I was too. It’s a shame because this a story with a lot of potential and intriguing characters, but I found it inconsistent throughout. The character of Howl is introduced as this mysterious and powerful figure, but he throws a hissy fit when Sophie gives him the wrong hair dye. As for the war part of the story, it feels like it is intruding on Sophie’s quest, like a subplot taking over the main plot.

The movie’s saving grace and what guarantees its memorable film status is what you see on screen. Only in Miyazaki’s world do you get talking fireballs, shape-shifting wizards, airplanes carpet bombing a city, and a moving castle made out of its own separate parts.


It’s a shame the animation does not support a stronger story, but even in this age of computer animation, Miyazaki’s world is in a league of its own.  


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #109: Touch of Evil

Some movies start off with a bang but with his 1958 film noir Touch of Evil cinema legend Orson Welles decided to start with three minutes and 20 seconds leading to the bang. During a tracking shot set in a U.S – Mexico border town we follow a car right after an unseen person has installed a crude bomb in the trunk. It’s a lovely evening with people having a good time and border agents diligently doing their jobs as they let the car cross over onto the American side. Then the bomb goes off, two people die violently, and suddenly it’s not such a good evening. That’s one way to hook in your audience.
Some people resolve to eat better, quit smoking or do more exercise for the New Year. As we start off 2019 one of my resolutions is to try to watch more classics films, and even though I got a lot of great films as Christmas gifts I thought I would use my day off to check one classic film I had never seen off my list. Of course I am familiar with Orson Welles, a filmmaker so prolific that in…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #64: Oldboy

One thing I have noticed from the few Korean films I have seen so far is that Korean cinema really doesn’t hold back. One of that country’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful movie is Oldboy (2003), which has amazing performances, beautifully choreographed fight scenes and a story filled with many twists and turns. It also has plenty of scenes that will make you squirm whether because of graphic violence, very disturbing revelation, or because you prefer your calamari fried instead of alive.
This was one of the last movies I rented from a video store in the pre-Netflix days in early 2009. By then its reputation had grown in the west especially since on top of the many awards it had won it had also earned high praise from Quentin Tarantino who knows a thing or two about violent and entertaining movies. On paper Oldboy’s plot sounds like something right up his alley: a man is seemingly wronged by an adversary and that man then seeks bloody retribution. However while T…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #30: Aliens

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes a movie can change a person. For me that movie was James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), a movie that made an action icon out of Sigourney Weaver after pitting her against an army of nightmarish creatures and their giant queen. This movie came out the year I was born and while I was growing up it increased in popularity achieving classic stardom as a science fiction, action and horror film. Unfortunately while I was growing up I must admit I was scared of most movie monsters, to the point that just the trailer for an Alien movie would make me nervous. Then I saw Cameron’s film and went to the dark side of the moon.
Here’s the setting: it’s 2002 and my parents and I are living in Santiago, Chile. By then I haven’t seen any of the Alien films from beginning to end, but I have a general idea of what they do and how they tend to pop out of people’s chests. One evening I see that Aliens is about to start playing on a movie channel and I decide to take a chanc…