It’s over a decade since we watched our first Studio Ghibli film—Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Boy, did it leave us stunned!
We’d heard of Spirited Away (2001) and watched a part of it in 2004, but it took us until 2008 to catch up with the Japanese animation giant. And it blew our tiny minds.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Since 2008, we’ve realised this is actually one of Studo Ghibli’s lesser offerings.
As fabulous and inspired as it is as times, it doesn’t have the same genius as Princess Mononoke (1997).
But this is Studio Ghibli we’re on about here. The remarkable creativity on display is a joy to behold—the downside for this review was how tough it proved (due to copyright issues) to find supporting clips. Ho hum.
A shame, as there’s some staggering animation in Howl’s Moving Castle. Particularly of the castle, which judders and lumbers about like something from a Terry Gilliam animation.
It’s comical to watch, but also most eye-catching—such as when we first see it emerging from early morning mist.
The plot is an interesting consideration on youth, ageing, beauty, and war. It was adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’s eponymous 1986 fantasy novel.
18-year-old Sophie (Emily Mortimer/Jean Simmons) is young, pretty, and introverted.
But after an altercation with the Wicked Witch of the Waste, she’s transformed into a 90-year-old woman.
Heading out to break the curse, she stumbles across Howl’s enormous castle that judders along looking like it’ll collapse at any second.
She meets a sentient scarecrow, Turnip Head, who helps her board the castle.
Inside she comes across various weirdos whom she quickly befriends—Markl, the young apprentice, and Calcifer (Billy Crystal) who’s a fire and the source of the castle’s magical abilities.
She also meets narcissistic hot stuff Howl (Christian Bale). He’s instrumental in trying to end a war in the local kingdom, but is highly enigmatic.
Sometimes he’s utterly charming, other times lost in depressive thoughts (the below clip has no sound so, no, your computer/device isn’t broken).
Sophie’s overall goal is to find the Wicked Witch and return to her youthful self.
However, the ongoing war in the region draws her further into Howl’s tormented mind—he has magical abilities, but is also prone to petulant mood swings.
For example, he proclaims in a moment of angst there’s no reason to be alive if he can’t remain beautiful.
What plays out is an increasingly fantastical love story, with Sophie and Howl settling their various mental health and physical ailments.
But we have to say the film does lose its way in the second half. All the clever, endearing stuff from the beginning turns into a chaotic mess of predictable storytelling.
Perhaps the issue for us here is it’s a Studio Ghibli film. You go in expecting genius and it doesn’t quite deliver to the animation giant’s usual standards.
Hayao Miyazaki directed—he’s central in all of the studio’s most famous works. He’s also come out of retirement, at 78, and is working on his next film right now.
But for Howl’s Moving Castle it’s as if the spectacle came before the story.
And so as the film is aiming to peak, there’s a mass of predictable chaos going on. The viewer simply has to wait for equilibrium to be restored.
Regardless, it’s astonishing to look at and worth the viewing as the first 60 minutes are brilliant—but it’s not the finest entry in the studio’s glittering canon of explosive creative excellence.
The castle is the central draw here. Annoyingly, there aren’t many clips to steal off YouTube. It’s a sight to behold as it lumbers along. A fabulous creation.
For anyone who still thinks animated films are for kids, you really need to see the likes of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.
On an artistic level alone, the hand-drawn scenes are constantly beautiful and memorable.
If you’re new to these films then 2020 is your opportunity to get out there and watch them. No excuses now. You hear?