Castles in the Sky: Howl’s Moving Castle, by Aaron Pinkston
Howl’s Moving Castle is the first Ghibli film that I distinctly remember coming to theaters. I had seen Spirited Away in 2003, before Howl’s film’s release, but I was still blissfully ignorant of the studio’s greatness. Though the film garnered great critical success in the States, including an Oscar nomination (in one of the few years a Pixar film was not nominated), I neglected to see the film until the presentation of this series. It’s a good entry point in the series, a pretty mild film, thoroughly Ghibli, and balanced between the serious anime and lighter fare.
The film is notable for taking the standard Ghibli young female narrative and turns it on its head. The action takes off when young loner Sophie is turned into an old woman by an evil witch’s spell. Because we have a character who is young actually young but under the effects of old age, the film plays well on the ideas of youthfulness versus maturity. It does rely a bit on “I’m getting too old for this shit” type jokes, but she mostly retains a spry sensibility. There is also definitely a bittersweetness around themes of living a full life, regret and the other effects of aging. Sophie often pines about never being pretty and seems somewhat nostalgic for a long life that she didn’t actually live. I wouldn’t say that this is a definitive story about lost youth, but it is refreshing to see a slightly different perspective from Ghibli, especially when their other attempt at this, The Ocean Waves, was so completely unsuccessful. The most effective art throughout the film are sequences where there is a transformation in Sophie from old to young. Sometimes this happens between cuts, other times beautifully within a shot.
Being one of the “modern” Ghibli films, this is the first that feels draws heavily from computer animation — there were specific moments in Spirited Away where it was apparent, but not to the extent. Partially because of this, in my mind, Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the least beautiful of the studio’s work. There are times when the animation looks too slick, and other times completely flat. The title structure is certainly impressive, but it looks like it exists on a different plane, separate from the rest of the world. This gives the animation a look of inauthenticity, like it was cut and pasted, a copy. The art also takes a departure from the usual bright, warm color palette to a much darker and duller one.
Strangely enough, external beauty is a motif throughout Howl’s Moving Castle. There is a lot of talk about Sophie never being beautiful — even though she is as attractive as seemingly every other girl throughout the series (very Hollywood of you, Ghibli) — I guess it’s a self-confidence thing. Of course Sophie’s spell makes her less beautiful, deliberately to keep her away from Howl. The title wizard is very caught up with the aesthetically beautiful, keeping close attention to his own attractiveness, threatening to commit suicide at a point when his hair turns from blonde to unappealing black. He also expects the same out of potential mates, as we learn he’s spurned the Witch of the Waste as soon as her beauty slipped. It’s a little odd to see a children’s film so obsessed with physical beauty, though, like most films of its kind, everything is made right in the end. The ugly duckling realizes she’s a swan, the self-centered male has his eyes opened by the inner beauty of another, etc.
I haven’t often talked about voice casting and acting over the course of the series, but I find this to be an interesting example, in terms of the English dub. Sophie is played by Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons, depending on the appropriate age of the character. Mortimer is smart casting, as she completely personifies the mousey but not too unattractive type — I mean, it’s basically a role she constantly plays. Simmons is matched up with Lauren Bacall, who plays the enemy Witch of the Waste. I’m not sure if Simmons and Bacall have ever appeared in a movie together, but coming from the same era, two actresses of the same type, they play really well off each other. Not as successful is Christian Bale, who plays the wizard Howl. In 2004-2005 Bale wasn’t quite the known commodity he is now, but watching this film in retrospect, his voice pulled me out of it a bit. It isn’t just his recognizability, though, as I don’t see him fitting with the character of Howl, who is slightly built, pale, very feminine. Bale’s voice (even without seeing the actor) is gruff and masculine, a complete mismatch. Then again, we do get an early rendition of the “Batman voice,” so there’s that!
Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t a bad film, but I wouldn’t stack it up with the best of Studio Ghibli. It doesn’t quite have the sheer entertainment value or artistic achievement of other their other films, and it isn’t as thought-provoking. There are fun, imaginative characters and setpieces, but it ranks in the second half.