Plot: Sophie is a quiet, introspective young woman, but a chance encounter with a powerful wizard changes her entire life. After she is rescued from some ill mannered men by the wizard Howl, she is visited by the nefarious Witch of the Wastes, who knows she has been close to Howl. As such, the witch curses her, turning her into an old woman in mere seconds. But Sophie isn’t one to just give up, so she gathers up some provisions and heads out to find Howl and perhaps have the spell broken. On the way, she meets a curious scarecrow she names Turnip, who happens to guide her directly to Howl’s castle, a massive mechanical structure with incredible properties. Once inside, she discovers young Markl, who disguises himself as an old man when in public, as well as Calcifer, a fire demon who powers the castle. She is dazzled by the castle’s magical elements, but also shocked by the filth and disorganization, so she quickly begins to clean and make the place livable. Her efforts cause Howl some woes at first, but he soon adjusts and the group starts to feel like a small family. But with war tearing apart the world and Howl risking his own life and humanity to fend off the attackers, will they all survive long enough to enjoy this new bond?
Entertainment Value: A masterwork of animation, Howl’s Moving Castle conjures up an epic tale of adventure and magic, but never loses sight of the personal side of the stories, giving us a rich, unforgettable experience. So despite the wild visuals and colorful, over the top elements, the narrative here is grounded and tells a capable story, though one steeped in symbolism and metaphors. So you can simply experience the narrative or you can delve into the subtext, but however you choose to watch, Howl’s Moving Castle is quite effective. The tone of the movie is a little dark at times, given the ever present shadow of war, but it is also warm and humorous. The humor is organic and well handled, giving us character driven humor instead of constant pratfalls. The few times the movie leans on slapstick, it is effective and well timed, whereas a lot of animated films just pile on the physical comedy. Although one reveal didn’t resonate as much as I would have liked, otherwise the movie is good about laying down groundwork and even minor characters are well developed. This lets us easily connect with the characters and allows the interactions between them to have meaning, not just fluff. The movie hits some speed bumps at times, but I think it winds up as a beautiful, worthwhile trip that animation fans should take.
I rewatched Howl’s Moving Castle for this review with the original Japanese soundtrack, with English subtitles. I know Miyazaki recommends to watch his films in your own native language, but in this case, even if you dislike subtitles, you should opt for the original track. The English voice cast boasts some remarkable talent, but it simply never gels and to me, is one of the weakest Ghibli dubs. Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Blythe Danner, Billy Crystal, Lauren Bacall, and Jena Malone lead the cast, so the talent is here in spades. But the emotion and cadence just seem off, as a lot of the performers turn in lackluster or stale performances. I mean, if you just can’t handle subtitles, it is an option, but it should be a last resort. I’d recommend at least the first viewing to be with the original track, then switch to English after, to soak in the visuals. And the visuals here are gorgeous, with hand drawn animation that never ceases to dazzle and provide a feast for the eyes. The level of detail is remarkable and the world really seems alive, while character designs are typical Ghibli, with some unusual and memorable visual pieces in play. The castle itself is fantastic in design, with so much detail and depth, it is a beyond suitable centerpiece. So stunning visuals, a magical narrative, and the usual Ghibli charm, all on showcase here.