Over the span of nine months, GKIDS and Fathom Events are bringing beloved Studio Ghibli movies back to theaters during Studio Ghibli Fest. Hayao Miyazaki, the co-founder of the studio, is one of the masterminds behind these films. Some of his most known works are Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and more.
While I consider myself a fan of animated movies and series of all kinds, somehow I have never seen a Studio Ghibli movie. When I tell people this, I’m usually met with surprise because the movies have an incredible reputation. With the movie returning for its 15th anniversary, I watched Howl’s Moving Castle for the first time. The experience was a good one and upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to see what else I’ve been missing out on.
This film follows Sophie, a hat maker that lacks confidence, who meets a charming and mysterious wizard named Howl. Howl had saved Sophie from being harassed by two of the town guards. The Witch of the Waste, who wishes to literally steal Howl’s heart, witnesses this encounter and turns Sophie into an old woman out of spite. She specifically curses her so that she may also never tell anyone who she really is or how she was cursed. Sophie set off to the countryside to try and break the enchantment but ends up finding Howl’s castle.
There she meets a scarecrow she affectionately calls ‘Turnip Head,’ Howl’s apprentice, a young boy named Markl and fire demon named Calcifer. This ragtag group comes together and bond in a way that warms the heart. Their halcyon days come to an end with the war that looms over them. Howl, being a powerful wizard, is summoned by the king to fight. Howl and Sophie devise a plan to get Howl out of the responsibility but it quickly backfires. Suliman, a witch and the king’s advisor, steals the magic of the Witch of the Waste leaving her powerless. Suliman promises that Howl will be subject to the same fate if he does not fight. From here, Sophie and her new found group get put in the crosshairs of war and magic which threatens their livelihood.
The movie exudes a sense of wonder and magic with its setup. The town looks familiar but has differences that make the world of Howl’s Moving Castle so different from our own. There’s a mesh of nature and technology that’s absolutely breathtaking. The strange blend of architecture that makes up Howl’s almost animal looking castle is an example of this. Similarly, the war airships that are clearly technological but still have wings that flap like a birds and release creatures instead of flat out weaponry.
The characters in the movie are all super lovable as well. Turnip-head doesn’t say a word until the end but I still was so happy to see that he was okay. Markl is a super cute kid who cares a lot for Sophie. The relationship between the two was gladdening to see. Sophie kind of takes on a caregiver role for some of the film and it’s clear that Markl really admires that and emulates it to an extent. There’s even the dog, Heen, who joins the group late but is still a treasure. The Witch of the Waste without her powers is another addition to the group that I found surprising but still appreciated. All the characters had a level of complexity to them that certainly left me wanting to know more about them.
Sophie’s Appearance & Change
One of the most interesting things about the movie is its focus on appearance and change. This is most obvious in Sophie’s case. Throughout various points in the film, when Sophie is at her most carefree and confident, she looks more like her original self. When she is plagued with doubts, her appearance reverts back to that of an old woman. There are moments when the switch doesn’t hit you immediately. It’s a good tangible marker of Sophie’s growth as a person.
At the end of the movie, Sophie is mostly back to herself but still has gray hair – a signifier that she’s learned from her experiences. Her romantic love for Howl and platonic love for her friends pushed her to change for the better.Howl’s looks also change throughout the film. He starts out as a vain handsome blonde with a reputation for trouble. It’s made obvious that he’s very cowardly, often preferring to shirk his duties. We also find out that Howl gave his heart to a demon and that allows him to turn into a bird like creature. Even though the sight of him is terrifying in that form, he uses it to do good. His powers put his life at risk but he transforms anyway in order to destroy warships and protect his friends.
One critique of the film that I would give is that it left a lot of information out. While it’s not pivotal to the story, no one ever really touches upon the rumor that Howl steals beautiful women who are then never seen again. It’s also a little weird that Sophie, disguised or not, would so easily welcome herself into the castle when it has that reputation. She says that since Howl was supposedly only after attractive women, she wouldn’t be at risk because her body looks old but… still kinda weird to not dwell on it.
Another thing is that while war is all around these characters, we hardly get a sense of what caused it. This is most likely because we are seeing everything from the perspective of the main casts and since they aren’t invested in the why’s or how’s, we don’t get to know the answer.
Overall, I found the movie to be super enjoyable. It had messages and themes that were super relatable. The animation was brilliant. There’s a lot of attention to detail in every single scene whether it be the use of color or the depth of the transformations sequences. I definitely regret not seeing it when I was younger, but the fact the the film feels magical, even at this point in my life, is pretty amazing.
Make sure to check out Howl’s Moving Castle at your local theaters on April 7, 8, and 10! Search on Fandom Event’s website which theaters are playing the dubbed or subbed versions.
Featured image credit: Studio Ghibli