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A Little Old Lady Takes on Wizards, Witches and a Wayward Castle: Howl’s Moving Castle Review

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Howl’s Moving Castle, featuring the voices of Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, Blythe Danner, Crispin Freeman, Josh Hutcherson, Jena Malone. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones.

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks
of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of
three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three
of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

And so begins British author Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 young adult novel, Howl’s Moving Castle. Jones’ takes European fairytale traditions and turns them upside down.

Her heroine is the mousey, boring, dutiful eldest daughter, Sophie Hatter. Her father has died, leaving a good-hearted stepmother, Fanny, with the business and bundles of debt. In order to economize and give the girls’ a good future, she sets up her pretty middle stepdaughter Lettie to apprentice at a bakery and her own daughter, Martha–Sophie and Lettie’s half-sister, to apprentice as a witch.

Sophie apprentices at the hat shop which she will eventually inherit.

In Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, this little bit of background
isn’t so clear, at least in the English dubbed version. We do know that Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) dutifully stays at the hat shop while the others go out to have fun. She has heard of the wizard named Howl (actually Howell Jenkins); rumors claim that he collects the hearts of pretty young girls. The wicked Witch of the Waste also lurks about. And as the title suggests, a castle wanders about the countryside.

Other more normal things threaten her little village. Two kings have gone to war and the village is filled with troops. (War isn’t a theme in Jones’ book)

On her way to visit Lettie one day, Sophie walks down a lonely alley and some soldiers tease her. A mysterious, gallant stranger, Howl (Christian Bale), comes to her aid. Then dark, blobby soldiers from an otherworldly army begin to follow them, but they are actually after Howl who suddenly springs up and takes Sophie flying above the buildings of this quaint English town in a odd, almost 19th Century era where wizards go to war for kings, battling against mechanical flying machines.

Soon after, Sophie meets the Wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who stalks into the hat shop and steals away Sophie’s youth. Ashamed, though she thinks she’s finally grown into her dowdy clothes, Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) runs away into the Waste. She meets a scarecrow who leads her to Howl’s moving castle.

Jones’ describes it as “a tall black castle blowing clouds of black smoke
from its tall, thin turrets.” Miyazaki’s anime imagines the castle as a massive
construction with parts that suggest a mouth and eyes, moving, groaning like a humorous transformer grouper fish or frog robot a top chicken legs with a tail as an entryway.

As a young woman, Sophie was timid, but as an old crone, she’s too tired and achy to worry about niceties. She brazenly moves into the castle, telling Howl’s apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson), that she will be the cleaning lady. In the movie, Markl (Michael in the novel) is portrayed as a young boy.

Inside, the castle is a bachelor’s pad with piles of junk here and there, unwashed dishes, dust and dirt and spider webs everywhere. She befriends the castle’s whiney fire demon, Calcifer (Billy Crystal), promising to help him find a way to return to his original form if he helps her do the same.

When she meets Howl, she recognizes him as the man who once came to her aid, but he doesn’t recognize her in her wizened form. Howl can transform himself into a bird of prey, but that’s not his only guise.

Sophie soon realizes the castle moves in another way, as a portal to four different places where Howl assumes different identities. Yet as a wizard, he also has duties. The warring kings are calling all the wizards to help. When Howl is summoned under two different aliases, he asks Sophie to help him.

Miyazaki’s movie has changed many of the elements of the original novel–the youngest sister doesn’t appear and there’s less emphasis on Sophie’s family and Howl’s romantic dalliances, but Miyazaki has stayed true to Jones’ gentle tweaking of fairytale conventions. All of this is in keeping with Miyazaki’s legacy of plucky heroines who find their true selves through adventure and adversity.

The animation isn’t as awe-inspiring as his 2001 Spirited Away, or playful as his 1988 My Neighbor Totoro, but he has given the castle a whimsical personality, making it more of a character in its own right. The romantic undercurrents soften the anti-war theme, making this movie less strident than his environmentally concerned 1997 Princess Mononoke. Yet like all of those, this movie will charm children and adults alike.

This review originally appeared in the “Pasadena Weekly.”
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