My Thoughts: HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)


I was a guy who up until late 2013/early 2014 never watched anything that had to do with anime. It just never interested me and I couldn’t stand the way anime characters move (I’m weird)! Thankfully, I decided to relent and watch a film from this Studio Ghibli which was apparently the Walt Disney of Japan. And I’m glad I made that decision!

If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been introduced to the great storytelling, colorful animation, and just inventive premises and characters that Studio Ghibli films have to offer. And the film of today’s review provides all of the above! Let’s talk about Howl’s Moving Castle.

The film takes place in an alternate universe where wizards and witches live alongside regular people. One such regular person is an 18 year-old girl named Sophie, voiced by Emily Mortimer (in the Disney dub). She works as a hatter in her late father’s shop on a day-to-day basis.

To all you Once Upon a Time fans, I don't think Jefferson was her father.
To all you Once Upon a Time fans, I don’t think Jefferson was her father.

One day, she’s saved from two predatory soldiers by a mysterious wizard-like man named Howl, voiced by Christian Bale. After dropping Sophie off safely, Howl soon disappears. Sophie is then visited by the Witch of the Waste, voiced by the late Lauren Bacall.

Her character just makes me so uncomfortable.
Her character just makes me so uncomfortable.

The Witch of the Waste is a somewhat evil character who has been looking for Howl for some time. When she found out that Sophie has come into contact with Howl, she curses Sophie by transforming her into an old lady. Not only that, but this particular curse prevents Sophie from even explaining her curse to anyone. So basically, she has to live her life as an old lady whom nobody else knows who she is or where she comes from.

"Who is that girl I see staring straight back at me? Why is my reflection someone I don't know?"
“Who is that girl I see staring straight back at me? Why is my reflection someone
I don’t know?”

After coming to terms with her curse, old Sophie, voiced by Jean Simmons, sets out to find help and comes across Howl and his titular moving castle, a mechanical contraption that is more animal-like than machine. She signs on to work for Howl (who doesn’t recognize her, of course) as a cleaning lady and spends her time getting to know Howl, learning his secrets, meeting new friends, and dealing with an ongoing war in her country.

But even during a war, they got time to cook breakfast together!
But even during a war, they got time to cook breakfast together!

The movie is just super creative, inventive, and just lovable all around! What exactly is good about it? Well, the animation, like all Studio Ghibli films is just gorgeous!

You can't tell me that this isn't a real mountain! I won't believe you!
You can’t tell me that this isn’t a real mountain! I won’t believe you!

The voice acting in the American dub is pretty good too for the most part, with the exception of Christian Bale who just seems like his average Bruce Wayne at best.

"Need I remind you that I'M BATMAN?!!!"
“Need I remind you that I’M BATMAN?!!!”

The characters are just super inventive and creating. I personally really love the character of Sophie. She’s similar to Cinderella in how selfless, kind, and loving she is. She’s willing to do so much for others, both for those whom she loves and for her enemies. She’s won my heart and would definitely make my list of animated crushes! Hmm…I should make a Top 13 list of that!

"Would you marry me, Sophie?" "Sorry, I love Howl!"
“Would you marry me, Sophie?”
“Sorry, I love Howl!”
"Would you marry me, Odette?" "Sorry, I love Derek!"
“Would you marry me, Odette?”
“Sorry, I love Derek!”
"Would you marry me, Daphne?" "Sorry, I love my Freddy!" "DARN IT!"
“Would you marry me, Daphne?”
“Sorry, I love my Freddy!”

So, is there anything bad about the movie? Well, yes, I have one complaint to make about this movie and it’s a big one: the plot holes! Sooooo many things aren’t explained in this movie and don’t make sense: Sophie is cursed and yet throughout the movie, she seems to change back and forth into a young girl again and back into an old woman. Why? One of the villains in this movie becomes “good” all of a sudden. Why? Howl has a secret, but it’s not truly explained how or why he has what he has. Why? Why? Why? There’s soooo many unexplained things in this movie.

Besides that con, this movie is simply amazing! It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and deservingly so. It lost to Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which I’m not sure should have won, but I’d have to think about it.

"Need I remind you AGAIN that I'M BATMAN?!!!"
“Need I remind you AGAIN that I’M BATMAN?!!!”

I love this movie so much, but all its unexplained plot points prevent it from being the best (out of like the 7) Studio Ghibli film that I’ve seen. It has to be the 2nd best Studio Ghibli film that I’ve seen!


29 thoughts on “My Thoughts: HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)”

  1. Well, you finally disagreed with Doug Walker on something other than Fantasia! Wow! Also….

    “I was a guy who up until late 2013/early 2014 never watched anything that had to do with anime. It just never interested me and I couldn’t stand the way anime characters move (I’m weird)!”

    No, you aren’t! I’m that way too. It’s mostly due to growing up watching stuff like Pokemon and Digimon: The Movie, but I have never liked the style of anime at all. I did watch and like Puella Magi Madoka Magica, though, so perhaps I am coming around.

    It doesn’t help that the only Miyazaki film I have watched in recent years is Ponyo, but I remember watching Kiki’s Delivery Service when I was a lot younger and thinking it was boring. Someone recommended Castle in the Sky to me recently, though, so who knows?

    1. Yeah, I was happy that I disagreed with Doug on this too. I don’t see how he could have disliked it.

      And thanks, I don’t feel so alone now in that I don’t like how anime characters move, lol. I never even watched Pokemon, Digimon, DragonBallZ, or any of those shows growing up.

      If I had to recommend a SG film to you, I’d say ‘Spirited Away’ or this.

      1. I’ll watch The Secret World of Arrietty first because I grew up enjoying the books by Mary Norton and unfortunately I’ve only seen the 1997 movie. I highly recommend those books.

      2. I watched Secret World of Arrietty this morning. I can barely count it as an experience with anime at all, actually. It was mostly a pretty faithful adaptation of the first book.

        And most of the things in the film that I heard people characterize as Studio Ghibli themes or culture shock to do with Japanese animation were actually big aspects of the book series. The series honestly just translated very well into anime and the Studio Ghibli mold, particularly the simplicity, the fantasy elements, and the old-fashioned (the first book came out in 1952) charm.
        The open ending also is a result of the book setting up 4 sequels, along with flat out saying “Stories never really end, someone just stops telling them after a while.”

        I can definitely understand why you were bored with it, but when I watched it leaning over my bed to see the DVD player on this Saturday morning I was in the mood for it and it just worked very well. It’s definitely very different from American animated entertainment with their fast pace and mindless pop culture references, with frenetic motor mouth dialogue. It feels like something made much longer ago than it was.

        In fact, the one thing overwhelmingly Japanese about it is how calm it is, how much it insists on being calm and taking everything easy even to the most absurd extent. I once heard of a man who was Japanese-Hawaiian and as a combination of these two cultures he was very quiet and had been raised to believe one should live a modest life and resist starting conflict with others strongly. I also heard that Miyazaki does not like to use villains. Both of those things are very clear here. The book actually had a lot of tension and built very carefully to a very shocking dramatic climax in the last few chapters. There the villain Mrs. Driver was much more sinister and loathsome, not the laughing-stock her counterpart is here. She was really terrible to the boy dragging him out by the arm to try to make him watch the exterminators find the borrowers so he would see his friends die.

        It built to a very dramatic conclusion where the boy had to break open the ventilation shaft with an axe at the last moment so they could escape being fumigated, and I remember my aunt had finished reading it when we were at an airport and she was explaining to me how the boy had gotten his idea and how ventilation grates worked on houses in those days.

        Overall it’s a good adaptation though. Separate cultures definitely influence how one story is interpreted. You can see that here, and you definitely saw it with the way U.S. told the story in the 1997 comedy The Borrowers with John Goodman. And this is certainly much better than that.

        My biggest complaints are with the characters. Pod is so stoic and serious here, while in the books, he was just a very simple man who saw borrowing as a way to make an honest living and go home. He didn’t treat Arrietty like nothing happened when he caught her talking to the boy. He was very tense with her, refusing to speak, until he let her know exactly what she had done and what it meant for them. You barely see much reaction from either of them, even Homily (who’s basically portrayed the way she is in the book, just kind of amplified to an anime stereotype and I don’t like Amy Poehler’s voice acting) but forget that, I really can’t believe what they did with Spiller! Good God, what did they turn him into? AAAARGH.

      3. I’m putting them off. This was rooted in something I was familiar with. The others
        will all just be unbridled anime.

      4. Someone I know recommended Castle in the Sky for me once I learned I don’t like anime. I’ll watch that one next.

  2. I’ve never really been an anime person. This one is okay, but I just find them so odd. I’ve watched two other of the big animes – the Secret World of Arrietty and Spirited Away (and that one was super weird in my opinion!). Maybe they’ll grow on me but I just can’t really get into it.

  3. Cool. I sometimes wonder if animation buffs particularly love Miyazaki because it is so different. When you see as many movies as we do it’s refreshing to see something that is out there, that surprises us.
    This is brilliant. I think Spirited Away is better but its another movie where I had no idea what was going to happen with a lead character I could relate too. It’d be a hard one to review because it is so different. Good job!
    I guess I don’t really understand people that say ‘I don’t like anime’. Same with people who say ‘I don’t like black and white movies’. These are tools for making movies not genres. Like I could say ‘I don’t like horror movies’ (with a few exceptions) but that’s a genre. Anime, animation, CG, black and white can be in a variety of genres so I guess I don’t get disliking a tool. A movie or genre yes but the way a movie is made? I don’t get.
    Anyway, I like that Studio Ghibli so often has female leads that are complex and interesting. While perhaps a bit inconsistent as you say Sophie is one of the best. I just love it!

    1. I don’t particularly like any anime with the exception of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. So I will attempt to justify that. Anime is the product of another culture, that is not my own, and uses different storytelling techniques with fantasy elements that I can be uncomfortable with. It’s something very different.

      As for black-and-white movies, while I disagree personally, I think people dislike those because they are not used to the style, writing, and pace of older movies, and black-and-white just immediately signifies all that to them.

      So I hope I have made it make more sense to you to some extent.

      1. Thanks. That does. It just seems like more of a storytelling tool than a genre but I know the division can be very murky.

      2. Very true about black and white signifying a certain type of movie (whether that is true or not I would hotly contend) but that stereotype is out there. I suppose it is the same with anime. Good points.

      3. Agreed! I hope movies like The Artist make people realize it is just a tool to tell the story like anything else. Some black and white movies suck. Others are awesome! Some anime sucks, some is amazing. Just the movie not the tool used to create it. Otherwise I think you miss out.

  4. Hello there! I know I’m a few months late, but I thought I’d still try to explain the parts you had questions about. This is my first time using this website, so I don’t know how it works. Hopefully this gets to the right person ,and that it’s helpful.
    Okay, so to answer your first question, I’m taking a quote from someone else’s explanation (who happened to be answering the same question) “…she looks younger whenever she is feeling confident in herself. This transformation is only temporary since she generally sees herself as ugly and useless. The spell most likely works this way because it draws power from the heart, the feelings, of the person it is cast on. At the beginning she has such a powerful negative opinion of herself that nothing can change it. This explanation fits perfectly with the plot and theme of the movie, “That love is the strongest magic in existence.” Howl gives up his heart to become the most powerful, Calcifer comments, “Just imagine what I could do with your heart.”, true loves kiss frees Turnip Head, and Calcifer comes back in the end cause he misses them and the Castle can fly instead of walk after he is there willingly instead of against his will.”
    For you’re second question, I’m unsure which villain you’re referring too. I’m assuming you’re referring to The Witch of the Waste? If you are, I believe she may have suddenly become good because now she was much more dependent, having lost her magic and being turned into her actual age (which was very old). Or maybe she began to view them as family, rather then prey.
    And finally, I don’t know Howl’s secret? Are you referring to the way he turns into a bird like creature? Or why Calcifir had his heart?

      1. Oh! He turns into a bird-like creature because he turned himself into it with his magic. But every time he, or any other wizard or witch, turns themselves into something, it gets harder to turn back into their normal state.
        Helpful? Or anything else you may not have understood?

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