Howl’s Moving Castle is a magical but muddled fantasy: 5 from Futaki Pt 5/5


It’s a bit of a fixer upper…

For the final part of our tribute to late Japanese animator Makiko Futaki we look at fantasy film Howl’s Moving Castle (2001). 

The film tells the story of 18 year-old hatter with somewhat low self esteem Sophie. She encounters the mysterious wizard Howl and the two are chased by strange shadow creatures through the streets. The creatures are the minions of the bulbous Witch of the Waste who subsequently visits Sophie and transforms her into a 90 year-old woman.

The aged Sophie then sets off on a quest to find Howl and his fantastical moving castle, which looks like the stepchild of an AT-AT Walker and a steampunk fantasy house. It is quite a striking set piece. At the castle Sophie discovers fire demon Calcifer, voiced by legendary funny man Billy Crystal, and Howl’s young apprentice Markl.

Let me drive!

Of the five films in the 5 from Futaki series (see links below) this one is my least favorite. Don’t get me wrong now. The animation from Studio Ghibli is bright and beautiful and the character designs and landscapes are eye popping. And there were characters like Calcifer and Markl which I enjoyed and scenes that were both thrilling and emotional, but for me the story was too all over the place.

Young Sophie and old Sophie feel like completely different characters, especially because we saw so little of young Sophie. She transitions back and forth, and in between both ages, inexplicably and with little to no reaction by her or from other characters. And the resolution of her curse is unclear and not satisfying. I thought they were going for a reversal of the Beauty and the Beast story (though being old is definitely not “beastly”) but the whole age curse really is nothing more than a way to get Sophie to Howl.

I’ve got you

And Howl goes from charming to whiny to beastly and, other than his good looks and pirate swagger, you wonder why all the woman are so crazy over him. I did enjoy the look of his dark bird form but that was not fully explained and a bit confusing.

The visit to the King’s castle was my favorite scene though and I enjoyed the back and forth between Sophie and the Witch of the West, the displays of magic by Howl and Suliman, the king’s magic advisor, and the escape on those bullet plane vehicles. Suliman starts off promising but is pretty much forgotten after her first appearance. The Witch of the West also had potential as a decent villain but is turned into a strange ally which was disappointing.

Got any lighter fluid?

The plotlines of Howl’s quest to regain his heart, Howl being sought by both sides of a war, and Sophie seeking to become young again are not smoothly tied together and none are well resolved. The end of the film and the affirmation of love and family is touching though, but I feel like the film tried to do too much and failed to fulfill its great potential.

Rating: Howl’s Moving Castle gets 2/4 steampunk inspired dwellings.

So have you seen Howl’s Moving Castle? What did you think of it? Feel free to comment below. 

For the rest of 5 from Futaki you can check them out here:

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