Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones.
When hat shop girl Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Waste to be an old woman, she sets off to find a way to break the spell. With the help of a walking scarecrow, she ends up in the moving castle of Howl, a wizard of great reputation. With age comes confidence, however, and Sophie ends up helping Howl put his life back together –including hastening the end of the war that is quickly destroying their country.
Howl’s Moving Castle takes readers on a beautiful journey through what it means to love and how to make one’s own destiny. The movie opens with protagonist Sophie resigning herself to life in her father’s hat shop, trimming hats for all the girls she thinks more beautiful than she. However, she shows a burst of initiative when she throws a rude customer out of her shop after closing, and it is this feisty spirit she will convey through the rest of the story. (It isn’t her fault the customer was a witch looking for an excuse for revenge!)
The movie, then, quickly turns into an exposition of Sophie’s spunk and kind heart. Cursed to be an old woman–and forbidden to tell anyone about the curse–she adapts to her new role as quickly as possible, bossing people around and telling people the truths they don’t want to hear. Being old seems to liberate her in a way being young never did because she finally realizes she doesn’t have to care what others think. The others she meets love her as she is, and that’s a refreshing lesson.
There’s also a lot about teaching others to find their best selves. Practically no one in this movie ends it unchanged.
Unfortunately, all these touching scenes and uplifting ideas are encased in a rather confusing plot. The rules of magic in this world are incredibly unclear, and the parameters of Sophie’s curse are no exception, even though it’s the catalyst of the entire story and one would have expected someone to work it out. Like every other spell that gets broken, there’s absolutely no explanation for how it happens. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s something about the power of love and believing in yourself, but I’ll probably never actually know.
The other aspects of world-building are equally opaque. A friend I watched the movie with missed the one throw-away line by a background character that explains the reason for the war. He also wasn’t a big fan of the use of technology. Neither of us could figure out what the reasoning behind the entire climax is.
I like Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s imaginative, quirky, heartfelt, and fun, and that fact that half of it makes no sense doesn’t actually bother me. I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief for great characters, great messages, and great art. I think it is worth noting for potential viewers, however, that the movie does leave a lot of unanswered questions and it’s something the audience just has to deal with.