I love Howl's Moving Castle. This is not a surprise as I have loved every other movie by director or Hiyao Miyazaki and all the basic elements of those films are present in this incarnation. HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE is an animated movie of such breath-taking originality, beauty and wit that in ways, for those with acute appreciation of the visual arts, nothing more is necessary. Added to the lush hand-inked animation we have an evocative, "old-fashioned" orchestral score by Joe Hisaishi and Yuomi Kimura, which adds to the sense of mystery and wonder. Because let me be very clear about this, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE is no ordinary fairy tale. As with any other Miyazaki story, there are no goalposts, simply anything can happen, and there is always a very dark and nasty side to the story.
This disturbing mixture of fairy-tale and sinister politics stems from the fact that the movie is set in a place that looks a little like the Central Europe of Grimms' Fairy Tales crossed with Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Soldiers wear old fashioned uniforms with epaulettes and handle-bar moustaches, and poor unloved little girls work in hat-shops. But at the same time, there is a vicious war being carried out against an unspecified enemy. It is fought in futuristic looking bomber planes that raze whole cities. No-one really understands why there is a war and no-one really knows when it will end. Towns are bombed indiscriminately - maybe by our side, maybe by theirs. Mixed into this weird backdrop, the monarch enlists the help of witches and wizards to win the battles.
In such an uncertain world, our heroine, Sophie, perfectly voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer, is subject to a random act of violence. She is cursed by the Wicked Witch of the Waste - and changes from a confused, insecure teenager to a haggard old woman. She goes to work for the beautiful young wizard, Howl, in his moving castle. Underneath the beautiful blonde exterior, Howl is just a scared, petulant teenager who has no heart. He is so frightened of the summons by the king that he sends Sophie in his place, and when his blonde hair is accidentally dyed black he really throws his toys out of the pram and announces that "there is no point in living if I cannot be beautiful". By contrast, Sophie, now transformed into an old woman, is strangely relieved to be free of the burden of looking "pretty". In many ways, the journey taken by Howl and Sophie in this movie is one of self-acceptance, self-knowledge and self-acceptance. When this movie first came out at the cinema, I took my eleven year old cousin to see it. The sinister politics washed over her, but she got a lot out of this story of insecure self-image and the pressures of being a kid. She also really liked the character of Howl's best buddy, the fire demon, Calcifer. Calcifer is voiced by Billy Crystal in the English language version of the film, and his wise-cracking New-York accent clearly had the kids rolling in the aisles. However, his voice was the one false note in the film for me. His heavy accent is conspicuous and seems somewhat at odds with the Central European surroundings and the rest of the voice cast. This may sound like an odd criticism in a movie in which literally anuything can happen, but Crystal's voice broke the spell cast by the wondrous animation every time I heard it.
HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE premiered at Venice 2004 and is now available on DVD.