Howl’s Moving Castle

Studio: GKIDS

Oct 13, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

After a brief, chance meeting with a handsome stranger, young Sophie finds she’s run afoul of a powerful witch. Jealous of her proximity to the good-looking magic user, the witch puts a curse on Sophie, turning her into a very old woman,\ and making it so that she’s unable to tell anyone about her situation. Determined in spite of her frailty, she hobbles into the countryside – a place she’s warned time and again is infested with witches and wizards – in search of a cure. Soon, she’s picked up by a lumbering castle on legs, which she finds out belongs to the notorious and feared wizard, Howl, who looks suspiciously like David Bowie’s character from Labyrinth. Little old Sophie is employed as his new housekeeper, and as she slowly falls in love with the magical, mystery man, his own dark, secret curse comes to light.

One often feels compelled to compare Studio Ghibli’s films with those from Walt Disney Animation Studios, and it’s probably fair: from different sides of the globe, the two companies have been responsible for many our greatest animated treasures. You might be able to call Howl’s Moving Castle their spin on Beauty and the Beast, where the roles are somewhat reversed, and the young girl trapped in the castle with the magical, living inanimate objects is the one made ugly by her curse. The similarities largely stop there, however. (You’ll never find Sophie or Howl breaking into song.)

One of Hayao Miyazaki’s strengths is the sense of wonderment and magic that he’s able to bring to his films. That’s definitely the case in Howl, where most of the named characters are powerful mages, and those who aren’t are things like talking flames, or a silent, sentient scarecrow. It’s the titular castle, though, that’s most impressive: a living, labyrinthine, steampunk wonderland, which changes appearance throughout the movie and is just as much a character in the film as Howl or the wicked witch. This is where Miyazaki’s implementation of CG is most noticeable, in the building’s movement and transformations, but the blend of computer and traditional cell animation is nearly seamless.

There are some very dark elements to Howl’s story, which won’t come as a surprise to Miyazaki fans but could shock a parent expecting a Disney-like feature. Howl’s Moving Castle is set against a war between two neighboring kingdoms. The magic users are summoned by their kings to join the battle, and Howl is no exception. The wizards who fight turn into terrifying monsters and are sometimes unable to change back – Howl himself transforms into a monstrous black bird, not to join one side or the other, but to save civilian villages from being bombed by airships. Howl’s war scenes can be legitimately scary.

Howl’s Moving Castle is part of the first wave of Studio Ghibli re-releases being put out by GKIDS and Shout! Factory. As a whole, the collection is essential: many of them are among the best animated films of the last 30 years. While they’re all family-friendly, Howl’s Moving Castle – along with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke – do come with parental guidance suggested, due to some material that could frighten very young children. If forced to rank the Ghibli titles that are part of this re-release campaign, Howl would probably land toward the middle of the pack. A great film, no doubt about it, but not where we’d have you start if you were a newcomer to Miyazaki’s work. (Stay tuned, as we’ll be reviewing more of the releases as the next few weeks go on.)

GKIDS’ new Blu-ray/DVD dual edition ports over all of the extra features from the prior release, but adds a pair of new ones, including a vintage interview with British author Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote the source novel, and a Japanese featurette on the sound work in Howl’s Moving Castle. Both the original Japanese and English audio tracks are once again available; the English dubs on the Ghibli library are some of the best in the industry, and help open up the movies for viewers who can’t yet read subtitles, or don’t want to be distracted by the movies’ gorgeous visuals.


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