Released on: 20 November 2004
Starring: Jean Simmons, Emily Mortimer, Lauren Bacall, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal (English Dub)
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
The name Studio Ghibli is synonymous with high-quality animation and whimsical storytelling (for the most part). When I was younger, I was at a house party where they were showing Howl’s Moving Castle: my first exposure to Studio Ghibli. At the time, I wouldn’t say I liked it. I thought it was tough to follow. I had the impression that Studio Ghibli was overrated ever since. A few years ago, however, my girlfriend showed me Spirited Away, what I currently consider to be Ghibli’s best movie and objectively one of the best films of all time. Since then, I’ve seen Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke (another brilliant film), Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, Grave of the Fireflies (not for the faint of heart), My Neighbour Totoro, Whisper of the Heart and Only Yesterday. My opinion on Studio Ghibli changed drastically. So, because of my new-found appreciation of Studio Ghibli, I decided to give Howl’s Moving Castle another try. Did my second viewing of Howl’s Moving Castle prove more enjoyable?
Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of a young hatmaker named Sophie, who, after an unfortunate run-in with the Witch of the Wastes, gets a curse put on her that transforms her into an old lady. Determined to have the curse reversed, Sophie sets out to find the Witch of the Wastes and get the curse reversed. The story starts simple enough, and up until she finds the eponymous Moving Castle, the movie had a decent flow. When she does find the castle though… uh… more on that later.
As is expected with Studio Ghibli, Howl’s Moving Castle is visually gorgeous. The environments invoke the sense of wonder that made Studio Ghibli famous. Every shot of an open field, the city landscape, even the dirty castle, all work together to send the viewer’s imagination places they never knew it could go.
Another fantastic aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle is the character designs. With a name like “Howl’s Moving Castle,” it is safe to assume that it takes place in a world filled with magic. Not long after the movie starts, do we get our first glimpse of the Witch of the Wastes. One look at her, and the viewer knows just what kind of character she is: sinister, powerful, and an ill omen wherever she goes. Then there’s the scarecrow with a turnip for a head; I love him. He is just a friendly sentient scarecrow who shows up now and then to help our protagonist find her way. There’s also the crow-like henchmen with colorful tuxedos that I can’t get enough of either. I’m sure other characters will stick out to other viewers, but those are just some of my favorites.
Where I start to have some issues, though, is with the pace of Howl’s Moving Castle’s story.
Like I said in my synopsis section, the story is simple enough at first, but once Sophie finds the Moving Castle, the pace picks up rapidly. Sophie is thrown to the fire (almost literally upon meeting Calcifer) with the magic that goes on around her. She meets a kid that can disguise himself as an old wizard to keep Howl’s castle safe from outsiders. Then Howl returns from… whatever he was doing, sees the aged Sophie, gets convinced she’s the new cleaning lady, and yet is ok with a seemingly random old lady coming into his house, touching his things. Why is he so calm about this random lady finding his magical moving castle and making her way in there? At first, I thought it might be because he knew that the old lady was Sophie. If that was the case, how did he know? Young Sophie was quiet and much more timid than the older Sophie, who doesn’t hesitate to call Howl, Calcifer, or Markl (the young magician who disguises himself into an old wizard) out on their foolishness? I understand that Howl’s Moving Castle places a lot of emphasis on magic, and one could make the argument of: “It’s magic! No explanation is necessary!” While it is true that the viewer has to suspend their disbelief when it comes to magic, I feel the story would be more poignant if it did slow down a bit and let the viewer take in the magic that’s happening around the characters.
I will admit that part of the reason I feel the pacing is too quick might be because of the English dub. My second viewing of Howl’s Moving Castle, I watched it with the official translated subtitles to see how close the dialogue was to the original Japanese dub. What I noticed is that the English dub adds a lot of unnecessary noise in places where there originally was nothing. It felt like the movie was scared to let the audience take in what was happening. Two of my biggest problems with the dub are Calcifer (played by Billy Crystal in the English version), and Howl (played by Christian Bale in the English dub). Calcifer often muttered something to the other characters where it was initially silent, making it feel like he never shuts up. I find that frustrating since I like Calcifer’s design, and the subtitles proved that he does stop every once in a while to let his next spoken line have more weight. In the English dub, though, it feels like he needs to kill every bit of silence present. I feel bad for Billy Crystal since I did like him as Calcifer, but the direction given on his delivery was subpar. A casting choice I did have umbrage with, is Christian Bale as Howl. I like Christian Bale as an actor, notably as Batman in the Christopher Nolan movies. When it comes to voicing Howl though, I feel like, either the directors didn’t use his full range, or that he was miscast entirely. Howl, in this universe, is a legend. He is a person who people spread rumors about due to how mysterious and powerful his magic is. When I first saw Howl, I had to turn the volume up because it felt like he was always speaking quietly. Granted, he was being followed when we first met him, so at that moment, it makes sense, but then he kept that tone for the majority of the movie. Even when acting out, it still sounds like they told Bale to tone it down during Howl’s crisis. Why? He’s in his castle literally melting down. Scream! Anguish! Let it out!
Is it just me, or is everyone in Howl’s Moving Castle made of goo? When Howl begins to feel ugly, he turns into goo. The Witch of the Wastes when climbing the comically large set of castle stairs? Turns into goo shortly after! Heck, even her henchmen: goo. Is everyone made of goo in this universe? I guess it’s just a nitpick, but I did find it weird.
I did like Howl’s Moving Castle much more upon my revisiting of it, but I understand why I didn’t like it when I first saw it years ago. The fact that the movie’s pace is already fast for a Ghibli picture made even worse by the English dub adding unnecessary dialogue, made it difficult to follow, even on my second viewing. That said, the visuals are a treat, and the characters are colorful and whimsical. As a first Ghibli movie, I would recommend Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away instead, as those movies are a must-see for animation fans. For fans of Studio Ghibli who are curious about Howl’s Moving Castle, I recommend watching it in the original Japanese dub with subtitles for a better viewing experience.