Howl’s Moving Castle has been a nasty speed bump in my attempt to finish my Miyazaki-a-thon-. Howl is by no means bad but has never resonated with me. The characters are okay, the concept clever, and the animation has its moments. I think it has something to do with the plot. Normally, I wouldn’t critique a Miyazaki plot too heavily. If anyone has been able to spit in the face of the conventional story structure and show there are other ways to tell stories, it’s Miyazaki. Though in Howl, I can’t help but feel the movie loses momentum far too early. The suspense and action feel too spaced out. In all honesty, I’ve never watched more than an hour of Howl before becoming bored, confused, and hungry for bacon.
Based on the 1986 novel of the same name by English author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle follows an unfulfilled, 18-year old hatter named Sophie who after angering the Witch of Waste, is transformed into an old woman. Sophie leaves her town to go find a cure and encounters the moving castle (which is exactly what it sounds like) the home of eccentric magician Howl, his apprentice Markl, and a cynical fire demon named Calcifer. Sophie becomes Howl’s housekeeper and makes a deal with Calcifer to set him free if he can help Sophie become young again. Sophie falls for Howl, who can see through her curse, but there are other conflicts afoot. Howl must confront the Witch of the Waste and his former mentor to reclaim his honor and fix his reputation.
The plot gets a little muddy at the halfway point. What starts out as promising meanders as the Witch of the Waste is confronted early on and the stakes diminish. Additionally, I’m not too crazy about Howl’s character. Howl is branded as an outsider but I don’t feel he ever displays behavior that would put him on the enemies list of every wizard in the world. Howl is so sweet and compassionate towards Sophie, he’s a difficult character to comprehend. Sophie is hit or miss due to the fact that her older self is significantly more likable and interesting than her younger self. The shift between the two version of Sophie makes it hard to care about both forms equally. Calcifer and Markl are likable supporting cast members and my favorite part of the film, so they get a pass.
Regarding animation, Howl is the most polished Studio Ghibli film I’ve seen. Of course, this has both an upside and a downside. Howl’s actual castle is beautifully detailed and moves in such an unusual way that it’s a marvel to look at. On the other hand, I can’t help but be distracted by the use of computer animation for backgrounds and tracking shots. The computer animation looks sterile and has nowhere near the same visual impact as the hand-drawn art.
Maybe I’m being too hard on Howl’s Moving Castle. I don’t think it’s bad, in fact, there’s a lot to marvel at. My problem lies in not being able to connect with the story. The best Miyazaki films are the ones that feel intimate and Howl didn’t do that for me. Let’s see how Miyazaki’s next entry moves me when I’ll be reviewing Ponyo here at Mildly Pleased.