Anime Film Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle is an Academy Award-nominated film by Hayao Miyazaki, which is based on the novel of the same name that was written by a British author named Diana Wynne Jones. The film was released to Japanese theaters on November 20, 2004. Disney has the North American license for Howl’s Moving Castle; after getting a limited theatrical release in the United States and Canada during the summer of 2005, the film was released on home video on March 7, 2006.

Howl’s Moving Castle
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Chieko Baisho, Takuya Kimura, and Akihiro Miwa
Run Time: 119 minutes
Rated: PG

The protagonist of the film is Sophie, a timid 18-year-old girl who works in her late father’s hat shop. One day, when walking to visit her younger sister, Lettie, she ends up encountering the mysterious wizard Howl; he recuses her from a couple of soldiers. When she returns to the hat shop that evening, Sophie has a run-in with the Witch of the Waste. The witch places a curse on Sophie, and transforms her into a 90-year-old woman.

Sophie runs away from home, and befriends a bewitched scarecrow that she calls Turnip Head. Turnip Head provides Sophie shelter by bringing Howl’s Moving Castle. When I saw the animation for the moving castle, I thought it looked a lot like the animation style seen in Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

After Sophie is inside the castle, she makes a deal with a fire demon named Calcifer; he agrees to return Sophie to her normal self if she can break the contract binding him to Howl. However, since the terms of the contract cannot be disclosed to a third party, Sophie must figure it out on her own.

During her stay in Howl’s “castle,” Sophie meets a young boy named Markl. She ends up being taken on as a house cleaner, and spends a lot of time with Howl the wizard. During her stay with Howl, Sophie learns about many incredible secrets and has several interesting adventures.

Howl’s Moving Castle tells quite a magical story, but it also shows how much the characters of Sophie and Howl change as people as the film progresses. The most obvious change for Sophie, of course, is being suddenly aged into an old woman because of the Witch of the Waste. However, as she spends time around Howl and the others, Sophie goes through emotional changes as well. Howl also experiences emotional changes, but there is also a change in Howl’s attitude by the time the film ends.

The animation in the film helps to illustrate and complement the story that’s being told in the film. The design and animation for Howl’s castle emphasizes just how different and fantastical it is in comparison to the rest of the world that’s portrayed in the film. Yes, the animation for the castle does stand out a lot compared to the rest of the film, but this is a case where I believe this was done very deliberately to create an effect instead of simply being a case where the CG stands out too much from the rest of the elements in the film.

When Howl’s Moving Castle was released on DVD in the United States, it was a two-disc set. The first disc contains the film and some special features.

The first bonus feature on disc one is a nine minute documentary titled, “Behind the Microphone.” During the documentary, you see some of the voice actors recording the English dialogue to be put into the English dubbed version; there are also interviews with the director, producers, and some of the English voice cast. It’s a decent documentary for what it is.

Next is an interview with Pete Docter, the Pixar director who was responsible for directing the English dubbed version of Howl’s Moving Castle. This interview was produced in Japan, and the questions are written on the screen in Japanese. Unfortunately, the interview is not subtitled, so the viewer has no idea what questions Pete Docter is being asked; you are forced to try to piece together what was asked by the responses Pete Docter gives. For me, the lack of subtitles is a slight mark against this bonus feature.

Then there is a 16-minute long piece titled, “Hello, Mr. Lasseter: Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar.” This is some footage shot when Miyazaki made a surprise appearance at Pixar for the screening for the Pixar staff of the English dubbed version of Howl’s Moving Castle. For this portion of the piece, there is rather poor audio quality, and it can be hard to understand what is being said. The rest of the piece is an interview done with John Lasseter, which was done for a Japanese audience. The first question of the interview is said orally in English; however, further questions are only printed on the screen in Japanese, and there are no subtitles. This feature would have been better if the first part had better audio quality, and if there had been subtitles for the second half.

The final extra on disc one are the Japanese television spots and theatrical trailers for Howl’s Moving Castle; there is only Japanese audio available, but subtitles can be turned on. This extra runs for 12 minutes, and it’s all the trailers and television spots in one continuous piece; there is no way to select which ones you want to see.

All that is on the second disc of Howl’s Moving Castle is a storyboard version of the film; basically, it’s the movie, expect it only utilizes storyboards and none of the actual animation. To be honest, I just can’t understand the point or the appeal of seeing the complete film with storyboards instead of animation.

If you like Miyazaki’s work, or if you like the kind of storytelling used in this film, then you should see Howl’s Moving Castle. In my opinion, this film should be in the anime collection of anyone who is a fan of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

I wrote this review after watching a copy Howl’s Moving Castle that my husband purchased for me as a gift.

Additional reviews of Studio Ghibli films:

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