The Barenaked Archives – Howl’s Moving Castle

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

Howl's Moving CastleHayao Miyazaki is considered to be one of the best anime directors working today. His movies are always visually striking, with universal themes, strong protagonists, and memorable characters. He already has one Academy Award under his belt, Best Animated Feature for 2002’s Spirited Away. With his latest movie, Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki continues that tradition and shows there can be beauty, grace, and subtlety in a children’s movie.

Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is about Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), a young woman who has resigned herself to working (or overworking) in her father’s hat shop, but who has little confidence in herself.

One day, she has a chance encounter with the charming and mysterious wizard Howl (voiced by Christian Bale), an encounter that earns Sophie the enmity of the evil Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall). The Witch casts a spell that turns Sophie into a 90-year-old woman (voiced by Jean Simmons).

Desperate to break the curse, Sophie leaves her small town and seeks out Howl’s magical moving castle, starting a journey that will take her places she’s never been and bring her love and confidence if she has the courage to go for it.

Everything about this movie is wonderfully imaginative. The world draws you in immediately, and you relish each new discovery along with Sophie. The supporting characters are great, including Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal), a sarcastic fire demon that powers Howl’s castle; Markl, Howl’s eager young apprentice; and Turnip Head, a helpful enchanted scarecrow.

The castle itself isn’t quite like any castle you’d expect. It’s like someone took bits and pieces of several different houses and cobbled them all together, then stuck the whole contraption on skinny metal chicken legs. There’s a magical front door that leads somewhere different each time you open it, rooms that Howl shifts at his will, and hundreds of magical gizmos and gadgets. It’s surreal and inventive and makes for the best setting out of Miyazaki’s movies.

Although the film is beautiful, it would be nothing without its complex, dynamic characters. Sophie’s self-confidence may be middling, but she has a strong work ethic and a good moral character. She’s willing to help anybody, even those who have hurt her.

Howl is charismatic and occasionally kind, but he’s also vain, cowardly, and selfish. He and Sophie complement each other, though it takes them awhile to realize it. Even the Witch of the Waste is not a one-dimensional caricature of an antagonist. Somewhere deep down, it’s possible that she does, in fact, have a heart.

The theme that runs throughout the film seems to be that love conquers all, and that you must have faith in yourself. However, it’s never explicitly stated, but rather shown through the events. Howl becomes more courageous when Sophie is around, and Sophie’s curse diminishes whenever she gets comfortable in her own skin. It’s proof that you can be subtle in a children’s movie and still get your point across.

With beautiful animation, a solid story, fascinating characters, and a wonderful score, Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantastic escapist movie for adults and kids alike, and an early contender for Best Animated Feature. At just under 2 hours, it’s well worth seeing more than once.

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One comment on “The Barenaked Archives – Howl’s Moving Castle

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