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.