Thursday, May 17, 2012


Hayao Miyzaki's film Howl's Moving Castle (2004), based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, creates a fantastical world in which witches and wizards live among ordinary people. From the opening scene, Howl's castle, on mechanical legs, moves majestically and somewhat heavy handed through the lush and vibrant landscape that is the wasteland.

Sophie is Howl's Moving Castle shining achievement. She is brought beautifully to life with the voices of Emily Mortimer (young Sophie) and Jean Simmons (Grandma Sophie). She transforms from a timid, fragile and isolated young woman into a self-assured, at peace and family forming old woman. Of course the aging is anything but willful, she is bewitched by a jealous woman's spell and is forced to live as an old woman until love can break it.

Sophie, an old woman now, leaves on a journey to find the Witch of the Waste (voiced by the always magnificent Lauren Bacall), but realizes her old bones are unable to get her there. She befriends a jovial scarecrow, which she nicknames Turnip Head, and she sends him off to find her a resting place. Little did she know he would summon Howl (voiced by Christian Bale) and his moving castle. She reluctantly (Howl is known to be a savage, heart stealing man) enters the strange castle and finds a small fire and a chair. She quickly falls asleep. She awakes to a ringing doorbell, a little boy named Markl (voiced by Josh Hutcherson) and a fire demon named Calsifer (brilliantly voiced by Billy Crystal) settled into the ashes on the hearth. Sophie immediately finds a way to stay on board the magical castle as the cleaning woman. Howl soon returns and the makeshift family of bewitched beings share their first family meal.

It is the journey that these unlikely characters find themselves embarking on together that is the heart and soul of this film. Through an impending war, followed by its actual commencement, these characters beging to realize that love is the only thing keeping them together. Howl is a moody and unpredictable master of the house. Each character finds his or her own way to maneuver around Howl's petty obsession with beauty and Sophie finds a way to teach him that he cannot always be afraid of his own shadow. Sophie is a willful and determined old woman, who overcomes her greatest fears and compels those around her to fight against the forces of evil to do right by each other.

Color plays a very important role in this film, from the lush green and blue landscape to the flame engulfed skies, Miyazaki creates a vibrant playground for his characters to move within.  The bustling cities burst with color at the markets, in the peoples faces, and into in the sea. The castle is able to navigate between settings by a flip of the door handle. Sophie and Markl move between these doors quite often, enjoying the differences they bring. But war is moving closer and closer and Howl is forced to quit abandoning the real world for his fantasies. Sophie's courage sparks a fire in Howl's heart and he begins to find that staying to protect the ones you love is worth the costs of potentially losing them. Sophie teaches Howl that life requires reliance on other people, no matter what the cost.

Miyazaki plays with themes of beauty and ugliness, physicality is what hinders and also propels the characters of Howl's Moving Castle. Sophie believes that she is ugly and unwanted in her young state but immediately embraces her perceived imperfections as unnecessarily important with old age. Howl is unusually consumed by his physical beauty and only through an act of melodrama, when Sophie decides to leave, does his intense obsession begin to fade. Other characters deal with their various forms and measure their worth through the eyes of others. Only when they form their makeshift family do they begin to realize that beauty is so much more than physicality.

This is one of Miyazaki's finest achievements. The story is magical and yet grounded in reality. Sophie is a delight to follow and the people who become her family become ours as well.

Sophie with a renewed Calsifer 

Sophie watching the war consume her world 

The magnificent legs to the castle 

Sophie and Howl at the market where they first meet

Madame Suliman's faithful companion 

Howl in his bewitched state with Sophie clinging to him 

Grandma Sophie and Markl outside the castle 

The wonderfully realized moving castle

Sophie's first encounter with her transformed self 

Sophie in the hat shop 

The wicked Witch of the Waste 

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