Young Sophie: They say that the best blaze burns brightest, when circumstances are at their worst.
Calcifer: Yeah, but no-one really believes that. Come on, let’s be honest.
Now we get to the first movie that served as inspiration for my blog title. That process literally involved me staring at my movie collection seeing if I could somehow make up a cool-sounding name based on some of my favorites. Somehow, this movie ended up making the cut, and with good reason; it is one of my favorite movies (I have a lot of favorites…) and one of my favorite Miyazaki movies. Although I know, besides my husband, that I am in the minority in saying that, I’m going to attempt to prove everyone wrong in this review. Why is it my favorite, say, over Totoro, Castle in the Sky, or even Spirited Away? It’s hard, but let’s see if I can explain it (This will also be one of the first cases where I’m actually going to rate this movie below what you would expect me to for a “favorite;” I know this movie has flaws, but I love it in spite of it).
Alright. Well this one is NOT a Miyazaki original. It was a book of the same name written in 1986 by British author Diana Wyne Jones. I have never read the book but I have wanted to since seeing the movie. Apparently they’re pretty different, but the general ideas are still there, and you can see why Miyazaki was drawn to this story. Here’s the movie plot:
Our protagonist Sophie runs a hat shop. She’s off to see her sister one day when these strange mud-like creatures come after her. She’s rescued by a wizard named Howl. Later, back in the hat shop, the owner of those creatures comes in (she’s called the Witch of the Wastes) and is jealous of her being with Howl, and puts a curse on her, turning her into an old lady. (I’m starting to sense a theme with later Miyazaki movies… he sure liked curses!). Not knowing what else to do, Sophie heads out into the mountains, looking for a witch or a wizard who can break the curse. She meets a possessed scarecrow she calls turnip head, which leads her to Howl’s moving castle, which is literally a “castle” that walks (I say castle lightly, seeing as it’s just a bunch of junk put together… it’s not regal looking at all).
Sophie enters the castle and makes herself at home before meeting the fire-demon Calcifer who is embodied by a fire and is the one making the house move. He recognizes that she has a curse on her and makes a deal with her: if she can find a way to break the curse that Howl has over him, he’ll break the one on her. She agrees.
Eventually Howl and his apprentice Markl show up and Sophie says Calcifer hired her as a cleaning lady. We learn the castle’s door is a portal and leads to two different cities within the kingdom. There is a war going on, and Howl is summoned to the palace to fight in both cities using his aliases, The Great Wizard Jenkins, and the Wizard Pendragon. However Howl does not want to fight, and somehow talks Sophie into acting as his mother and going to see Madame Suliman at the palace for him. She goes, meets the Witch of the Wastes again, who has been summoned too, and meets up with Suliman, exclaiming Howl is too lazy to come himself. We learn that Suliman has stripped the Witch of the Waste of all her powers, and after Sophie stands up for Howl and his actions, he shows up and rescues them.
Other stuff happens, there’s a bomb at the hat shop which is now a portal from Howl’s castle, and a climax in which Sophie learns what the curse is on Calcifer and how lifting it can help both him AND Howl. She breaks it, he breaks the curse on her (although had it already been broken?) and everyone lives happily ever after.
Ok. I’m missing a lot of stuff in that plot that really makes the movie what it is, but I’ll talk about it through the characters. I do want to say that the plot is one of the reasons a lot of people don’t like this movie. And it’s true. It IS a bit hard to follow. It IS a bit boring at times. There are things that don’t make sense. The ending is way too rushed and confusing. You honestly have to watch this movie a few times to really understand it. I think that’s why a lot of people don’t like it. They don’t like a movie they have to think about or watch more than once or figure out for themselves. Unless it’s a movie like Inception. I happen to love it.
This movie has so much right at the heart of it. It’s a love story (I would argue it’s actually Miyazaki’s only really romantic movie, even though all his movies have a bit of romance/connection to them), but it’s also like Spirited Away: a movie in which a young girl learns the confidence she never thought she had.
Sophie, in the beginning, is a mouse. She’s soft spoken, average looking, and believes she really isn’t anything special. In a world where the Wizard Howl is known for eating the hearts of young beautiful women, Sophie knows she doesn’t have to worry: she’s none of those things. So when Howl does show up, it throws her for a bit of a loop. After she gets the curse put on her and turns into an old woman, something interesting happens: after freaking out initially, it turns out to be incredibly freeing. Something about being old and undesirable makes her personality grow and her confidence begin to shine. She starts at Howl’s castle as a cleaning lady because it gives her something to do, but through dealing with him and learning about him and taking care of Markl and Calcifer, she learns to stand up for herself and speak her mind. Something about being old is freeing, and she takes advantage to the point where it actually changes her.
I’m going to mention Howl first before I really delve into their relationship. Howl is, to put it simply, a selfish, heartless, baby of a man. He’s running from responsibilities. In some ways, he’s really a character you shouldn’t like. But yet, when you watch the movie, you can’t help but be incredibly intrigued by him the more you learn. He and Calcifer have this arrangement. What is it? Why does Howl act like this? Did something happen? He’s not exactly an open book. He doesn’t talk much about himself, and for much of the movie is pretty much a mystery. He’s got this problem where he’s slowly turning into this strange black winged bird-monster thing. Does this have to do with him and Calcifer? We’re intrigued because Sophie is intrigued. She thinks he’s ridiculous and childish, but something about him still draws her in. She cares about him unconditionally and wants to help him. We do eventually learn the answers about Howl, but in the meantime we’re left with questions about this character, which I think is part of what makes him so interesting. He’s a mystery, and I like that. The first time you watch this movie, you really don’t understand. If you’re completely oblivious to details, like me, then the ending the first time is a huge surprise.
The more I watch this movie, the more I pick out, and the more intricate and amazing Howl and Sophie’s relationship becomes. It’s not easy to see the first time you watch it. It’s in the small things you pick out after watching this movie over and over again. This movie is about destiny. It’s about seeing through the faults of someone if you truly love them. Sophie has this connection to Howl that is a bit hard to describe. She loves him and wants to keep him safe. She wants to rescue his soul from turning into a monster, because I think somewhere deep down, she knows that he is a good person worth saving and worth loving. Perhaps she thinks that like her, he’s a bit misunderstood.
Howl’s actions with Sophie, on the other hand, are completely all about destiny, and I kinda really love it. It’s almost like a bit of time traveling weirdness. I’m going to explain this scene that really puts it all together for you. It’s kinda that “ah-ha!” moment for the movie when you understand everything and get the answers to all our questions.
Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD***
Sophie has to break this thing that’s on Calcifer and Howl so that Calcifer can break the curse that’s on Sophie. The moment where she figures out how to do it is beautifully done and is my favorite scene in the movie. It’s near the end. The castle has just fallen apart because Sophie had to pour water on Calcifer to save the witch of the waste (we figured out that Calcifer has Howl’s heart within him, and she wanted it.) She’s at the bottom of a ravine and the door to the castle is there too. It’s open, leading into a black void. She has seen Howl disappear here before, and decides to go into it this time. After walking through nothingness, she arrives at Howl’s childhood. He’s at a home in a meadow we already know he came to many times as a boy. It’s night and there are shooting stars. After some amazing imagery with absolutely no words, we learn that the falling stars are spirits, and landing on earth is actually killing them.
Anyway, Sophie watches as a young Howl outstretches his hands and catches one of these stars. They’re seen exchanging words, then Howl eats the star and brings it out of his chest, along with his heart. To save the star spirit, he sacrificed his heart and essentially gave birth to Calcifer. This is the moment Sophie understands. She knows how to break the thing that’s on the two of them: she has to give Howl’s heart back and hope that Calcifer can survive. Calcifer can be free, and Howl can go back to having a heart, which should stop his transformation into a monster (It’s implied that this is his true form – it’s what he truly is without a heart).
As she’s in this dream portal thing, the ground begins to give way. As she falls into the void, she shouts out to the boy Howl that it’s her, Sophie. She knows how to help him and tells him to find her in the future.
BAM! This one scene explains SO MUCH about this movie it’s ridiculous. It explains why Howl acts like a child and is called heartless. Essentially, he IS still a child; he IS literally and figuratively heartless. He used his own heart and as such essentially gave away a part of him. Sophie even remarks when she returns his heart to him that it’s fluttering like a bird, and Calcifer says that its still the heart of a child. Howl literally had no heart. It’s why he was so stand off-ish and somewhat cruel. It could explain how he was so selfish.
BUT what I love about this scene is that it explains so well why the rumors came up of Howl being a wizard that goes around eating young girls hearts. HE WAS LOOKING FOR SOPHIE CAUSE SHE TOLD HIM TOO. I remember the second I realized this, probably the 4th or 5th time I saw this movie. In the beginning, when we first see Howl, he shows up next to Sophie and says “There you are sweetheart, sorry I’m late. I was looking everywhere for you.” In the situation and the first times you watch it, it’s just something he’s saying as a act because she’s in trouble with some guys who are trying to take advantage of her. But dear sweet lord it is so much more. He FINALLY found her. He heard her in his childhood and spent the rest of his life looking for her because he knew that she could save him and that she was someone who obviously cared enough about him.
I think that realization makes this movie so much better. In some ways, it makes Howl’s connection to her deeper. He’s probably already decided that this girl is worth caring about, because obviously she cares about him enough to figure out how to save him. He’s selfish and heartless because it’s a side product of giving his heart to save another. That action alone makes him a much more likable character. Suddenly we realize he’s not heartless or crazy. We realize that he does have a heart, and it’s something that only Sophie can handle because she’s pure and the only person he can maybe even sort of care about.
Ok. I want to move on to Calcifer, because he’s another extremely important character. He’s the fire demon/falling star that Howl swallowed. He makes a deal with Sophie about her curse: if she can figure out how to break the one on him, she can break hers. Neither of them can talk about their curses, but it’s almost as if he somehow knows that she’s different and that somehow she’ll be the one to do it. Most of the movie he’s depicted as the fire that is in Howl’s castle, but he has remarkable magic, as he is also the one who moves the castle from one place to another. He’s cheeky and sarcastic in the American dub, and offers for a bit of comedic relief. He’s also one to watch, and we realize early on that Sophie is something special, because he actually allows her to use his flames to cook – something that’s remarked on by Markl that only master Howl can do. He’s voiced by Billy Crystal, and in all honesty is a great comic relief character who has some of the best lines in the entire movie.
Also in Howl’s castle we have Markl, who is his apprentice. He’s a small child but practices magic and in the beginning is almost more of a mini-adult. With Sophie there to act as a mother figure (especially when she embodies her old Sophie) he learns to take himself less seriously as the movie goes on. He’s a cute kid.
We have a lot of minor characters, but the other big one I want to talk about is one of our villains, the Witch of the Wastes. She is the one who puts the curse on Sophie, and the next time we see her is at the palace where Madam Suliman strips her of all her magic, turning her into what she truly is (according to Madam Suliman). She ends up as a decrepit old lady who Sophie takes pity on. What’s interesting about her is that the Witch of the Wastes embodies the ideas of greed and jealousy. She for years has wanted Howl’s heart. In this movie, that means literally as well as figuratively. She isn’t working for anyone but herself, and because of that gets everything handed to her. After she’s stripped of her powers she seems a bit more manageable and less evil, but only until she learns that Calcifer has Howl’s heart, then she goes into a rage to get it, essentially destroying the castle and not only injuring those inside but Howl as well. Seems some things are hard to completely get over.
Our other villain is Madam Suliman, who works for the king. There’s a war between two kingdoms because one thinks the other kidnapped their prince. Or something like that. Honestly, this is one thing that I really don’t like about the movie. At the end (SPOILERS) you figure out that Turnip head that has been following Sophie around is really the lost prince. The one they’ve been at war over. But honestly? You have no idea this is why they’re fighting unless you happen to listen very closely in the beginning to two people having a soft conversation as Sophie walks by. Or if you’ve read the book. Seriously, that’s it. That’s the only mention they have to why they’re fighting. It bugs me.
At the same time, though, it doesn’t bug me that you don’t know why they’re fighting. Because as Madam Suliman remarks at the end when she finds out Howl has found his true love, “It’s time to put an end to this idiotic war.” WHAT? I know it’s anti-war man Miyazaki, but if you didn’t catch that they were fighting because of a kidnapped prince, what would this make you think? Did Suliman start this war so that she could get Howl? I just… I honestly don’t know. But Suliman is an interesting one we don’t see a lot of, but I still classify her as evil, and the “villain,” if only for the same reason as Jigo in Mononoke: we don’t know anything about her and she’s trying to hurt our characters. And apparently she can start and stop wars for no good reason.
Alright. Characters out of the way, I want to talk about this curse of Sophie’s, because it is a bit confusing. The Witch of the Wastes casts it on her because she was jealous Sophie had Howl’s affections. She thinks that turning her old will stop him from wanting her. She starts off extremely old, hunched over, etc. As the movie progresses, there are certain times where she is not as old as she was in the beginning. She’s old but standing more upright. Wrinkles disappear. Most noteworthy is when she’s talking to Suliman about Howl and she goes from really old to as she was at the beginning of the movie right in front of our eyes. Suliman calls her out on it and she goes back to being an old lady. Or the scene where Howl first shows her the meadow he went to as a boy. She’s all young except for her silver hair, but he calls her beautiful and she morphs back into an old lady.
So what’s going on? I mentioned that Sophie finds the older version of herself freeing – she can speak her mind and essentially be more of herself in that body than she could in her own, young body. The conversions to her younger self happen, I believe, when she’s in the midst of feeling like herself and gaining her confidence. It happens unconsciously, but when someone points it out to her or compliments her, she starts thinking again and turns back into the old lady.
So does the curse get lifted by Calcifer in the end? Apparently, it is to be believed that the curse was already lifted. Apparently this was one difference in the book and the movie. In the book, Sophie was in fact a bit of a witch herself but didn’t know it. Howl could see through the curse and lifted it for her, but Sophie wouldn’t let him – unconsciously. In the book, that’s what accounts for the transformations back and forth.
In the movie, I dunno how much of that could be true. It’s possible Howl could have seen through the curse all along – we see him glance at her as a young girl when she sleeps. But there is nothing in the movie that makes you think Sophie is a witch. Nothing (unless I’m completely oblivious – which wouldn’t be a first time). Obviously it was dropped for the movie (which I actually think is a good thing). I think instead, the curse was all about Sophie finding out how to lift it herself, and in gaining wisdom and confidence she was able to do so, however any steps backward in her progress would reveal the curse again. By the end, she’s comfortable with herself, and Calcifer breaks any of the curse that’s left after he’s freed, and she’s her younger self again (although with silvery hair).
Alright. I have to talk about the bad stuff, because it does exist. This is far from a perfect movie. I’ve already mentioned the incredibly difficult plot to follow (i’m not even explaining some of the details because that would make it ridiculous). I’m not going to lie – the thing that has always gotten me in this movie is this one part. I don’t know if its because of plot holes or what, but for whatever reason I can’t wrap my head around it.
The point in question happens after Sophie is at Madam Suliman’s and rescues the Witch of the Waste. They crash land into the castle, and Howl decides to redecorate, making it bigger and adding another portal – this one leads to the hat shop and Sophie’s home.
I understand why he’s doing it. He’s showing that he supports her, loves her, and wants her to feel like part of the family. But here’s my question: we already know that when the castle isn’t tuned into one of the portals, it just stands as an empty framed building. so… what happens to Sophie’s house? what happens to all the people who did work there? Was she the only one? Eventually her mother shows up (working with Suliman to find Howl), and acts all surprised to see her there. Doesn’t she live there? isn’t that where you, her mother, would expect her to be since you have no idea that she’s with a wizard? I mean we do see Sophie’s mother in the beginning right after she turned into an old woman. Does she live there or was she just visiting? if she did live there, where does she live now?? ugh. I don’t understand!! You never actually get the answers to these questions and it’s a bit bizarre. It’s something that has always bugged me.
It also bugged me that that place was so short lived. They get there, Suliman spies on them, and then a bomb targets the house. It was supposed to be a enemy bomb – but was it? was it Suliman? Howl tries to save them, but they’re still connected to the house and Sophie decides instead of disconnect them from that place by pulling calcifer outside of the castle so that Howl stops protecting it. WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THAT PLACE!! ok. I really don’t get it, other than to show Sophie that he does care about her (which I guess is an ok point, but wasn’t the other portal to the meadow the same thing??). There is the argument that Howl is setting them up to be comfortable, suggesting that he’s going to sacrifice himself to save them. Sophie even points this out to him, and he doesn’t deny it. I guess this argument works, but I dunno. It still bugs me and seems kinda pointless.
One more problem that I’ve actually gotten over is the voice acting. For the most part, it’s good. I’ve mentioned Billy crystal. This movie also has Emily Mortimer as young Sophie, Jean Simmons as Old Sophie, Lauren Bacall as The Witch of the Waste, Josh Hutcherson as Markl, and Christian Bale as Howl. For the most part, they all do a good job. Except – geez… Christian Bale. I mean, one of the reasons i’ve gotten over this issue is because Howl IS supposed to be a heartless unfeeling person for most of the movie. But I’m sorry, that still means you have to act. Some lines and their delivery are just SO HARD to watch. It pains me because I could act better. “heartless and devoid of feeling” doesn’t mean “wooden.” Sometimes some of the lines are very wooden. Anyway. I’ve gotten over it because it’s a stupid thing to complain about. And it’s only a few lines that still really bug me or make me laugh because of how… ugh… they are (Calcifer! You hang in there! – hahaha… just watch the movie and you’ll understand).
Wow – this review is a lot longer than I thought it was going to be. Part of me feels I have to justify my love of this movie. Other parts of me feel that this is a movie you either get or you don’t. You either like it or you don’t. You either feel the things about it, or you don’t. And that’s ok.
It’s messy. This movie and its plot is very messy. Its confusing, and intricate. But unlike Spirited away, which I feel may not even have answers to some of its questions, I view Howl’s Moving Castle more like a mystery: the more you watch and the more you catch, the better it becomes. You just have to let yourself see it. The stuff this movie doesn’t answer do bug me, but they’re just issues, and if you focus on them too much you forget what part of this movie is really important – the relationship between the two central characters.
It’s worth watching for the characters alone. I’ve mentioned before that a movie can have a horrible plot and good character and I’ll love it. This is one of those movies. Sophie is a joy, and Howl is a character you feel drawn to although you don’t know why. The world of this movie is pompous and like a circus; the music is the same, and it’s incredibly beautiful (I’m actually humming it as I’m writing). Through all that joy, this movie also has this dark side that is almost downright scary at times with the war and Howl’s monster. It’s weird and quirky. The Castle isn’t a castle, but a jumbled mess of junk (it’s pretty much its own character, btw). But at its core is a story about a man searching for the woman who can save him. It’s not necessarily for young kids (they might find it incredibly boring), but it’s worth a watch.
I give Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) a 4 out of 5. I would deduct more for the uncharacteristic sloppiness of this movie, but I can bring myself to do that because I love it so much despite its flaws.
Up Next: Ponyo (2008)