Howl’s Moving Castle is yet another Miyazaki Hayao film. Strangely enough, it’s an adaptation of a novel by Dianna Wynne Jones. Despite the fact that someone else wrote the story, it has all the elements of a Miyazaki film. Just to illustrate this, let’s run through Steven’s list of Miyazaki themes and see if they show up in this movie…
This movie may have the most absurd Miyazaki flying machines so far. Not only are they huge flying air fortresses, but they fly using flapping wings. However, this world also has magic, so the impossible flying machines could be excused by the use of magic.
2. A general distaste approaching outright hatred of anyone wearing military uniforms. […] Virtually everyone in uniform is either a mindless automaton who blindly follows orders, or a rank idiot hell-bent on causing death and destruction just because.
This movie has both.
3. A preference for girls as protagonists.
4. A tendency to portray old people sympathetically even though they may have faces made ugly by time. […]
Check again. In fact, this time the protagonist is a very ugly old person. Sort of. Sometimes.
5. A bit of a tendency to preach. Most of his movies have a message of some kind. Sometimes it’s delivered with a heavy hand.
This movie isn’t as heavy as some, but it does continue his familiar themes: War is bad, and people who fight in wars are mostly idiots. He’s been singing this particular song for years. He does it well, but I think Miyazaki fans can be forgiven for wondering if he knows any other tunes.
Amazing that a story by another author fits the Miyazaki formula so perfectly. Either he greatly changed the original story to suit his purposes, or Miyazaki Hayao and Dianna Wynne Jones have very similar writing styles and ideas.
About halfway into the movie I was thinking, “This is great! This is my favorite Miyazaki movie so far.” The visuals are great, but not overdone as they were in Steamboy. The world is vibrant and full of detail. The characters are great (and not repulsive, as in the aforementioned Steamboy). The bad guys are bad, but nobody is pure cardboard-cutout evil. The main character is compelling.
It starts with Sophie:
Sophie is a young girl who lives in a victorian-style world with flying machines (true to Miyazaki style, they are whimsical and preposterous) as well as magic. There is a war on, although the details are vague as to what the sides are and why they are fighting. Wizards and witches take part in the fighting as well, and are sought by the state for their value as combatants. The most famous wizard is Howl, who roams the country in a crazy walking and (seemingly) steam-powered castle.
Then Sophie encounters the Witch of the Wastes, who puts a curse on her, turning her into an old woman.
So Sophie leaves town in search of a way to break her curse. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that she encounters the castle and ends up involved with Howl and his adventures.
The trick with curses is that you can’t tell anyone about your curse, how it works or who did it to you. This makes getting rid of curses far more difficult. Sophie can’t tell people she’s not really an old woman. It seems just about all of the major characters have curses on them. All of them are trapped in ways they can’t articulate. So for the first hour I was treated to some wonderful visuals and interesting characters and a facinating premise. I was engaged and anxious to see how it all turned out, and how all of the curses were undone.
But at about an hour in, it started to drag. The movie stopped going where I wanted it to go, and it seemed to lose its way.
What were the rules governing her curse? How could it be undone? When she was asleep, she was a young girl again. But what did that mean? The movie never really got around to explaining what everyone’s curses really were. We never learn the motivations behind a lot of the characters and why they act the way they do. After a while it started to feel kind of arbitrary. When the story came to the happy ending, I wasn’t even sure what had happened.
There are wonderful, funny moments in this film and I did enjoy it. Like I said, at the halfway point I was ready to call this my favorite Miyazaki movie. If it had retained the energy of the first hour and come to a satisfying ending, it would have stayed as such.
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