If you have never read a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, then you have many treats waiting for you. If you have never seen a movie by Hayao Miyazaki, again, you have many delights yet to come. In Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, joy has been combined.
This animated movie is not an adaptation like, say, the first Harry Potter film – so tied to the book that it is almost boring. No, this movie is more like the film of The Princess Bride. It approaches the story from a very different perspective, yet succeeds in making a film just as wonderful as the book. And that is a rare occurrence.
Our heroine is Sophie, in the book the eldest of three daughters and stuck in the back of her late father’s hat shop. One night the local boggy man, the Witch of the Waste, comes to call, and when the altercation is over, Sophie has been transformed into an elderly woman. She can’t tell anyone she’s under the curse, either. But reversing the traditional fairy tale, it’s the eldest child that puts on her hat and shawl and goes off on a life-changing adventure. You probably won’t see an American animated picture brave enough to allow the young heroine to remain an elderly woman for the bulk of the film, but Miyazaki not only does it, he pulls it off. And the Japanese trailers did not show young Sophie until literally the last week before the release. They showed only the cursed Sophie.
Not your average animated feature.
How and why Sophie meets up with the wizard Howl (rumored to eat the hearts of young girls) and his marvelous moving castle is different in book and movie, but you cannot resist the charm. From the moment the castle lurches into view, plodding along upon its Baba Yaga legs, its dark bulk suggesting eyes that see and a mouth that may open, you want your very own mechanical behemoth for yourself. “Grandma” Sophie hitches a ride, insisting that Calcifer the fire demon hired her as the new housekeeper. Actually, Calcifer wants something else from Sophie – he wants her to break the curse binding him to serve in Howl’s hearth. He even suggests he can then break the curse she carries, revealing that any talented magic user can recognize a cursed woman, even if Sophie cannot speak for herself. But cleaning up and organizing a bachelor establishment is as good a cover as anything.
In Miyazaki’s version of Howl, the demands others try to put on Howl become a war fought because of a missing, unnamed prince, and the heartless Howl’s constant (and inconsistent) courtship of dozens of girls gives way to youthful enthusiasms and passions, represented by a master bedroom cluttered with flotsam and jetsam any geek would adore. Wizards and witches change places and even sides in the confrontations to come, as Miyazaki explores many forms of love and identity. Halfway through the movie the story mostly detaches from the book, but the same themes of honesty, trust, service, and even faith in self and others weave a tale that will satisfy most viewers.
Will Sophie solve the mystery of the heartless Howl and the fire demon in his hearth? What happens when a bespelled soul is freed by true love’s kiss, only to discover that its rescuer loves another? Is Sophie in fact a witch herself – and is in disguise in more than one way? Miyazaki’s Sophie has a talent for collecting allies, even from the opposition, and talking life into inanimate objects. But she’s never thought of herself as pretty – and she never thought love would ever seize her heart.
I have loved Diana Wynne Jones’ novel since I first discovered it years ago, but I cannot resist Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Viennese waltzes, marvelous airships and perfect music have led this story into a world worth visiting. The English voice cast does a wonderful job, for those who don’t care for subtitled movies. The American DVD release contains a second diskette with storyboards, trailers and film of the American voice actors laying down the tracks. Speaking of voiceovers, Japanese voice actor Daijiro Harada, who does Heen, the wizard Suliman’s “errand dog,” deserves special mention. I dare you not to fall in love with Heen, and he’s only one of the characters you will gather into your heart.
Recommended, but the battle sequences and dark magic are fairly scary, so be prepared, if you decide to share this with young children.