When an unconfident young woman is cursed with an old body by a spiteful witch, her only chance of breaking the spell lies with a self-indulgent yet insecure young wizard and his companions in his legged, walking castle.
A love story between an 18-year-old girl named Sophie, cursed by a witch into an old woman’s body, and a magician named Howl. Under the curse, Sophie sets out to seek her fortune, which takes her to Howl’s strange moving castle. In the castle, Sophie meets Howl’s fire demon, named Karishifâ. Seeing that she is under a curse, the demon makes a deal with Sophie–if she breaks the contract he is under with Howl, then Karushifâ will lift the curse that Sophie is under, and she will return to her 18-year-old shape.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a 2004 Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The film is loosely based on the novel of the same name by British author Diana Wynne Jones. The film was produced by Toshio Suzuki, animated by Studio Ghibli and distributed by Toho. The Japanese voice cast featured Chieko Baisho and Takuya Kimura, while the version dubbed in English starred Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall and Christian Bale.
The story is set in a fictional kingdom where both magic and early 20th century technology are prevalent, against the backdrop of a war with another kingdom. The film tells the story of a young hatter named Sophie after she is turned into an old woman by a witch’s curse. She encounters a wizard named Howl, and gets caught up in his resistance to fighting for the king.
Influenced by Miyazaki’s opposition to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, the film contains strongly anti-war themes. Miyazaki stated that he “had a great deal of rage about [the Iraq war],” which led him to make a film which he felt would be poorly received in the US. It also explores the theme of old age, depicting age positively as something which grants the protagonist freedom. The film contains feminist elements as well, and carries messages about the value of compassion.
Howl’s Moving Castle was praised by critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports an 87% approval rating based on 175 reviews, with an average rating of 7.5/10. The website’s critical consensus reads, “Exquisitely illustrated by master animator Miyazaki, Howl’s Moving Castle will delight children with its fantastical story and touch the hearts and minds of older viewers as well.” The film also holds an 80/100 average on Metacritic, based on 40 reviews, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.
USA Today critic Claudia Puig gave the film a positive review, praising it for its ability to blend “a childlike sense of wonder with sophisticated emotions and motives”. Helen McCarthy in 500 Essential Anime Movies said that the natural world was “beautifully represented”, with “some absolutely breathtaking mountains and lakeside landscapes”. She also praised the design of the Castle and added that Miyazaki added his own themes to the film: “man’s relationship to nature, the futility of war, and the joy of flight”. Joel Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal called the film “a moveable feast of delights”. Richard Corliss of TIME magazine wrote, “Palaces and shimmering lakes, warplanes and fire sprites all come to life at the breath of Miyazaki’s graphic genius.” Writing for The Boston Globe, Ty Burr said, “At its best, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ offers a rich fantasy of adolescent escape, of romance in the old and epic sense. At its worst, it’s the most amazing 12-course meal you can’t bring yourself to finish.” A.O. Scott of The New York Times wrote, “Admirers of [Hayao Miyazaki’s] work, which is wildly imaginative, emotionally intense and surpassingly gentle, will find much to appreciate in this film because it demonstrates, once again, his visual ingenuity and his sensitivity as a storyteller. For newcomers to his world, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is a fitting introduction to one of modern cinema’s great enchanters.”