Howl’s Moving Castle

A confession: I have never really “got” Howl’s Moving Castle, and my love of Studio Ghibli prevented me from reviewing it even after two watches (subbed and dubbed). Having now tried a third time, the charm is still lost on me.

After a witch’s curse transforms Sophie (a monotonous Emily Mortimer) into an old woman (a much more dynamic Jean Simmons), she takes refuge as the cleaning lady in a steam-powered walking fortress. Its owner Howl (Christian Bale) is a wizard who has all sorts of crazy adventures that we never get to see, focusing instead on the mopey Sophie as she literally gathers dust. Where Hayao Miyazaki’s heroines usually sweep the floor with their fairytale counterparts, the obedient Sophie stays at home cleaning for the self-centred title character. Although her role is probably meant to invoke Cinderella, Sophie’s glassy-eyed love for the slippery Howl leaves her playing second fiddle to a bloke who is absent for most of the film.

This being Ghibli, one cannot fault the wonderful animation and steampunk design, with the castle itself more interesting than any of the characters inside. Not even the grotesque Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) or sparky fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal) can hold a candle to the polytheistic plethora of Spirited Away, though it is arguably unfair to compare any movie to a film that had everything. Miyazaki’s irrepressible humanity comes through in lessons about old age, finding one’s family and resisting conflict (it comes hot on the heels of the Iraq invasion), but as a depiction of war it pales in comparison to Grave of the Fireflies or Princess Mononoke.

Despite some striking visuals and surreal imagery, Howl is not particularly moving in either sense, since the plot always seems to be happening elsewhere and the most engaging character is mute and has a turnip for a head. Normally I would end by lamenting the Academy’s bias towards Western animation, but considering they voted for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit over Howl’s Moving Castle, it seems a stopped bloc is right twice a decade.


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