Just recently, one of the greatest animated artists and animated directors of all time decided that it was time to retire. Even people who are not as in tune with the Japanese culture know of Hayao Miyazaki. The man is a legend and has given us some of the most visually stunning masterpieces to ever grace the big screen. The stories that Miyazaki and the people of Studio Ghibli tell are ones that can be watched and enjoyed by all ages. They are movies that you can just watch over and over again, all the while still feeling the same since of wonder and grandeur as you did the first time you saw it. He truly is a masterful director and animator. While it is sad that he is retiring, it is also well deserved.
It wasn’t until this week that a roommate of mine rented one of Miyazaki’s works, Howl’s Moving Castle that I realized I had not seen this particular film by Miyazaki, but I had also not reviewed anything by Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli for that matter. Which truly is a travesty in my book to deny praise to such a talented individual. So I decided to sit down and give it a go. Wouldn’t you know it? It was just as amazing and whimsical as the other films in the Miyazaki oeuvre. Howl’s Moving Castle is easily one of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s finest works, second only to the iconic film Spirited Away which is easily cracking the top 50 of greatest movies of all time.
Based on a book by Dianne Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is the epic adventure of a young demure hatter named Sophie (Emily Mortimer). After encountering a mysterious and handsome wizard named Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is stricken by a curse placed on her by the Wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) who loves the handsome wizard, thus turning Sophie into an elderly woman. In order to break the curse, Sophie travels to the Wastes and on the way encounters a living scarecrow named Turnip Head who takes her to Howl’s Castle. There she meets a fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal) who has also been cursed. Calcifer hires Sophie to be a cleaning lady and makes a deal with her that they will attempt to break each other’s curses. They are also joined by Howl and a young man named Markl (Josh Hutchinson). Howl is later summoned to the throne of the King in order to assist in the war (hinted that it is a war between the UK and Germany from the artwork) and sends Sophie in his place to sort of ‘test the waters’. There she meets the Wicked Witch of the Waste who is subsequently stripped of all her powers once setting foot in the castle. After Madame Suliman’s intentions are made clear, the story becomes one of a ragtag group of cursed people trying to run from Suliman and her forces as well as attempting to break the various curses that holds them.
Miyazaki’s Handy Work
Do I really need to say more? The flow of the film is perfect, the tone is fantastic, and the drawing is gorgeous. This has all the makings of a Miyazaki movie right down to the detail of the blades of grass as they blow in the breeze. The script is excellent and the characters are expertly written as well. When you watch a Miyazaki film, you really do see the hard work and the love that the man puts in each of his masterpieces and Howl’s Moving Castle is not exception to this. It is a grandiose film that just feels like the perfect storm of animation gold all expertly crafted by Miyazaki’s hand
The music in this movie really draws you into this world. It is almost mesmerizing how well Hisaishi’s music blends with the visuals of the film to create a beautiful and hypnotic melody. I give Miyazaki praise for all of his work, but even though Hisaishi gets plenty of praise I feel like he doesn’t get enough. The musical score of this film is like the proper seasoning on a perfectly cooked steak. Sure it is great on its own, but the music itself adds that right balance of flavor and amazement that just makes it perfect on every level imaginable.
The Sophie Character
One of the biggest problems in the film industry today is the portrayal of women on the big screen. While the argument of exploitation of women is an argument for another day, I can still admit that there is the problem with presenting very strong and positive female characters that do not feel like a damsel in distress or trying to hard to not fit that stereotype. If anyone really wants to see the perfect example of a female protagonist, then you really need to look no further than the Sophie character.
First off Sophie is presented as a very strong-willed yet simple girl. She works in a hat shop and by all accounts has a life that she seems quite content with. When the curse is placed on her head and she becomes an old woman, she never really complains or mopes about this fact. Instead, she becomes very active, traveling to the Wastes as an old woman just to free herself of the curse. Whenever she takes on the position as housekeeper in Howl’s castle she once again becomes more of a mother figure to Markl and Howl who is by all accounts still a child himself and any complaints that she does give would be logical complaints that anyone would have given the fact that overnight she was transformed into an elderly woman.
Sophie is a protagonist, she is a relatively simple character, who has the weight of the world suddenly thrust upon her shoulders. It just so happens that she is a female and never once is she exploited sexually in any way (you could actually argue that it is the opposite of sexually since she is an old woman for most of the first two acts) or is it blatantly made a point that she is a female protagonist. Her gender is irrelevant to the overall story and I for one find this to be a wonderful thing. In order to have a really great female protagonist all you have to do is not take issue with the fact that the protagonist is female, like this movie does. It is a fantastic addition to the movie and I for one think Sophie is one of the more underrated female protagonists of cinema.
The Idea That There is No Inherently Bad Characters
I do love it whenever a movie stays away from creating an overtly evil antagonist. There is really two ‘antagonists’ of this film, the first being the Wicked Witch of the Waste and then Madame Suliman herself. Both of which are very much antagonistic, one being the woman who places the curse on Sophie in the first place and the latter being the person who issues a complete manhunt for the various characters of the story just to obtain Howl. They are very antagonistic… But they are not the least bit evil.
The Wicked Witch of the Waste in particular follows this idea. While Suliman merely shows a bit of humility by backing off the characters near the end of the film, the Wicked Witch of the Waste is the woman who puts a curse on Sophie. So the events of this film and Sophie’s dilemma are directly caused by her… And yet she is still treated like a real person. After she loses her powers thanks to Madame Suliman and becomes a helpless elderly woman, she becomes a much more sympathetic character who is portrayed as a woman who is desperately seeking the love of younger men like Howl. She is not in any way evil and even begins to feel remorse for putting the curse on Sophie in the first place, which Sophie holds no ill will over.
Presented in a lesser movie, this woman would have been the main antagonist and would have been a very loathsome evil person. Yet in this film that is not the case and really adds to the film for creating more… human characters. I find it funny that out of the characters, the ones that feel the most ‘human’ are the ones that are in Howl’s group, most of which are not actually human or their curses have affected them in such a way that they do not appear human.
There are a few things that are left unexplained in the story. For instance the ‘war’ that is going on is left pretty ambiguous. Judging from the music and architecture of the drawings, it appears to be a war between the United Kingdom and Germany or at least the equivalent of these two nations in this given world. Also the idea of magic in general of the story is explained with little detail and the explanations are usually given in a hand waving line of exposition… But really I can’t fault the film too much for this.
I noticed it sure, but it really isn’t that big of a problem to the story at large. It didn’t feel very distracting and really these concepts are pretty superfluous to the story at large. The ‘need to know’ information is given and the rest is left to the imagination of the viewer. So even the cons of this movie are not really all that bad in the grand scheme of things.
This film is wonderful. There is just a level of love and hard work that really shines through with each passing frame. The artwork is beautiful, the writing is top-notch, the music is mesmerizing, and the characters are complex and astonishingly well acted. Hayao Miyazaki truly is one of the best animators and film directors to grace the earth and this film and the many others in his oeuvre stand as a testament to his legacy.
Final Score 4.5/5
Thank you for reading. As always please like and subscribe for more reviews from me. Return Thursday for another episode of the Nerdiest Talk Show on Earth and on Saturday when I review the recent released, Bureau.