Western cultures are obsessed with youth. Women as young as 30 take drastic measures to avoid aging, by injecting poison into their faces and having surgeons remove fat from their thighs with suction tubes. Safety often takes a back seat to vanity and the prospect of being the sexiest person at work luncheons.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie has our worst fears realized when she’s transformed from a young lady into a frumpy senior citizen. Spending most of her days working at her deceased father’s hat shop, Sophie (Emily Mortimer) is a sad girl lacking in confidence and vivacity. While wandering around town, two guards aggressively flirt with her, and a shaggy pretty boy wizard named Howl (Christian Bale) comes to her rescue. Howl has a variety of magical powers, and one of them is the gift of flight. The two of them stroll high above the city walking on air, in a surrealist dreamlike world of the type that only Miyazaki can deliver.
The obese, ancient, and frighteningly hideous Witch Of The Waste (Lauren Bacall) is hopelessly in love with Howl, and succumbs to rampant jealousy over their afternoon walk in the sky. She pays a visit to the hat shop, and casts a tantrum-induced spell on Sophie that turns her into a 90-year-old woman (Jean Simmons). Desperate to break the curse and return to usual form, she stumbles upon Howl’s Moving Castle with the help of a bouncy scarecrow she playfully calls Turniphead (Crispin Freeman). The two of them are perfect additions to the oddball group of characters residing in the castle, including a comical fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal) and perky young apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson). The castle itself has bizarre externals—big mishmashes of colorful houses and junkyard pieces stacked together, prancing around on scrawny chicken feet.
Their journey together in search of truth and self-discovery is an entertaining and peculiar one. Hayao Miyazaki creates a visual world reminiscent of Alice In Wonderland. His ability to blend cuteness with creepiness makes his work unforgettable, while accessible to both children and adults. Throughout the movie, I was reminded of Greek Mythology, with its powerful figures containing human flaws that weaken their ambitions. Howl, perhaps the most interesting character of the crew, alternates from being a vain brat (“What is the point of living if I can’t be beautiful!” he exclaims when his golden hair is accidentally colored), to a compassionate man trying to better his community. He is not one dimensional, as many animated characters often are. Similarly complex, our heroine Sophie exhibits a blend of spunkiness and somberness. Though cursed into the body of an elderly woman, she learns more about herself as a crone than she ever did as a teenager.
Howl’s Moving Castle is an invigorating visual assault that brings back the magic of film. However, it never quite reaches the glory of Miyazaki’s previous movie Spirited Away. Some of it is a bit existential in nature, and may leave even the most acute of moviegoers feeling lost. There is a heavy ‘war is bad’ undertone too, which while I might agree with it, I don’t necessarily want it bashed over my head in random preachy moments scattered throughout the picture. For example, Sophie asks Howl at one point, “Are those the enemy planes or ours?” and he replies, “Is there really a difference?” These specific interactions are laughable at best, cringe-worthy at worst. Howl’s Moving Castle is like the weirdest dream or acid trip you’ll ever experience, broadcasted on the big screen by a team of creative craniums. It's a shame that real life can't be as exciting as the world Miyazaki creates. But then again, that's why we go to the movies.