Howl's Moving Castle
Howl's Moving Castle is an Academy Award-nominated Japanese animated fantasy film, based on Diana Wynne Jones' novel of the same name, and directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli. Mamoru Hosoda, director of two seasons and one movie from the Digimon series, was originally selected to direct but abruptly left the project, leaving the then retired Miyazaki to take up the director's role.
The film had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 5, 2004. The animated film was released in Japanese cinemas on November 20, 2004. The film has also been dubbed into English by Pixar's Peter Docter and is being distributed in North America by Walt Disney Pictures. The film began showing in select cinemas around the United States and Canada on June 10, 2005. It was released nationwide in Australia on September 22 and in the UK on September 23.
The protagonist of Howl’s Moving Castle is Sophie, a young lady who works in a hat shop in the town of Ingary. One day while walking to meet her pretty younger sister Lettie at the bakery, Sophie has a chance encounter with the handsome but mysterious wizard Howl, who rescues her from some menacing soldiers. Howl charms her with his looks and dashing feats of magic, briefly sparking happiness in Sophie. But later that night, the vain and jealous Witch of the Waste appears in Sophie's hat shop in the form of a enormous, obese, richly dressed woman, along with several of her threatening minions. She cruelly curses Sophie by aging her into a 90-year-old hag before disappearing.
Sophie decides to abandon her home and forces herself into the Wastes. Despite her recent bad experience with magic, she befriends a magical animated scarecrow she mistook for a walking stick, christening him Turnip Head. Turnip Head, in gratitude for Sophie's friendship, secures her shelter from the cold Wasteland within none other than Howl’s moving castle — a mobile, chaotic ensemble of metal scraps but a feat of magical engineering nonetheless. Inside the castle, Sophie makes a deal with Calcifer, a feisty, smart-talking fire demon who powers the castle's movement. Because of a magic contract that binds Calcifer and Howl together, Calcifer must work as Howl's servant, a position he has grown to resent. "Grandma" Sophie also meets Markl, Howl's eight-year-old boy apprentice, and reacquaints herself with Howl. She claims to be a cleaning lady hired by Calcifer to maintain the castle and quickly becomes accepted by Markl and Howl.
Sophie discovers that the front door of the castle is magically connected to several buildings in different parts of the country (Porthaven and Kingsbury), where Howl maintains a different identity at each one. She also learns that, despite his cavalier and pompous attitude, Howl is a likeable rogue. Despite being a grown man, Howl can be selfish, childish, and immature in many ways. He is fastidiously vain about his looks, and insensitive to Sophie's feelings.
Shortly after Sophie's arrival, Howl receives multiple summons to help each side fight a war against the other. The war is being fought over a missing prince, Crown Prince Justin, and each side blames the other. Howl is afraid to respond, believing also that the summons from Kingsbury is a trap set by Madame Suliman, the king's head sorceress and his old mentor. Howl convinces Sophie to go speak to Madame Suliman posing as his mother.
En route to the royal castle to meet with Suliman, Sophie runs into the Witch of the Waste, who proudly boasts that Suliman also sent her a royal invitation. However, upon entering the castle, the Witch of the Waste is captured by Suliman's stronger magic, and is then stripped of all her own powers and shrunken into a helpless old lady. Suliman demands that Howl submit to her and become a War Magician, or else she will strip him of his powers just like she did the Witch. Sophie angrily defies Suliman, defending Howl's noble character, and her passion temporarily restores her youth. Howl comes to her rescue and the two escape Suliman on a flying machine along with Heen, Suliman's asthmatic errand dog, and the now-helpless Witch of the Waste in tow. Suliman then plans to track down Howl by locating Sophie.
Shortly thereafter, Howl transforms the castle into a larger and nicer version of itself. This severs the portals to Porthaven and Kingsbury, while magically adding a portal to a flowery alpine field where Howl used to go as a child, as well as to Sophie's old hat shop in Ingary. As the war continues, Madame Suliman attempts to track Howl down and Howl begins fearing for the safety of Sophie and the others. However, the effects of Howl's own contract with Calcifer begin to take their toll: each time he transforms into a large birdlike monster to defend himself and his loved ones from danger, he becomes increasingly unable to revert back to his human form. Unknown to Sophie, the self-confidence she has gained since being cursed, along with her developing affection towards Howl, has caused her curse to begin reversing itself, returning herself little by little to her original age (although her hair irreversibly remains silver in color).
Eventually the conflict turns to Ingary. As bombers attack the town, Suliman's henchmen then begin swarming the hat shop, forcing Howl and Sophie to retreat. Sophie moves the castle back to the Wastes to escape, but is unable to tell Howl who is caught in an unwinnable battle. She convinces Calcifer to leave the castle, which demolishes it as well as most of the hat shop. Then, fueled by Sophie's long braided hair, which she gladly offers up to him, Calcifer powers a smaller portion of the castle and moves it to safety. Unfortunately, as he moves the castle, the Witch spies Howl's heart in the ashes - the one thing she has been secretly seeking. She greedily grabs at it, but the heart is so hot that it sets her aflame. Sophie then desperately throws a bucket of water on her and Calcifer. The shock of having his flames extinguished prevents Calcifer from controlling the castle; it teeters on a high precipice, and both Sophie and Heen are thrown over a cliff as the castle starts to collapse again.
Having survived the fall, Sophie starts crying over the thought that by dousing Calcifer, she might have killed Howl. Amongst the rubble she finds the magical castle portal. Taking a chance, Sophie enters the door to find herself in Howl's childhood. She learns that as a boy, Howl caught a dying (falling) star — Calcifer — and saved its life by giving it his own heart. The act of doing so bound Calcifer to Howl indefinitely as a servant, but the real injury was that Howl metaphorically lost his heart and became emotionally trapped forever in childhood, unable to truly and maturely love anyone. After having this realization and being pulled back through the door, Sophie finds Howl standing outside the door, still as a bird-monster but ready to take them both back to their friends.
Upon returning, Sophie convinces the Witch to give Howl's heart back to him. Sophie pushes it into Howl's chest and Calcifer emerges in his true form, as a shooting star happily spiraling into the distance. Without Calcifer powering it, the remnants of the castle suddenly give way and plummet down a steep slope. Turnip Head, in a moment of bravery, uses his balancing pole to stop the castle from sliding off a cliff, although he is badly broken in the process. Sophie thanks him for saving their lives by giving him a kiss. Turnip Head instantly transforms into Crown Prince Justin, the missing prince who was transformed by a spell that could only be broken by a kiss from his true love. However, when Howl wakes up, Sophie shows she is really in love with Howl (which has broken her curse). With Prince Justin rescued, there is no more reason to continue the war. As the kingdom's aerial warships return home, Sophie, Howl, the Witch, and all their friends fly away in the newly rebuilt castle, living happily ever after.
As Jones noted, the film is significantly different from her original novel in many ways. Roughly the first third of the plot is similar, after which the movie branches off into original territory, flavored with many of Miyazaki's familiar themes: airships, redemption, cute non-human sidekicks. The focus is still on Sophie and her adventure while being cursed with old age, but the main action of the film's story takes place during a war, reminiscent of World War I and located in a fantastical nation somewhat reminiscent of pre-World War I Alsace. Indeed, many buildings in the town scenes are identical to actual buildings in the Alsatian town of Colmar, which Miyazaki acknowledged as the inspiration for its setting.
Whereas the novel is concerned with Howl's womanizing and his attempts to weasel out of locating a lost wizard and a prince, the film has Howl avoiding helping in a national war for pacifist reasons, and deals with the consequences of this decision. This aspect of the film's plot is actually rooted in Miyazaki's political views as a pacifist- in an interview with NewsWeek magazine, Miyazaki told the interviewer that the movie had started production "just as your country [the USA] had started the war against Iraq", and the subsequent rage he felt about the Iraq war "profoundly impacted" the film.
The movie also delves into spectacular scenes of radically alternate realities co-existing within the normal reality of the main story, and phantasmagorical visuals are prominently featured throughout the second half of the film. The book also sees the protagonists detour for one chapter into the 20th century world, where Howl is known as Howell Jenkins. This element is not used in the film, although one of Howl's aliases is "The Wizard Jenkins."
Many of the book's characters are modified for the film. The character of Howl's apprentice, Michael Fisher, is a teenager in the book but a young boy, "Markl", in the film. Sophie has only one sister in the movie compared to two in the book (although the other sister is alluded to as an aside near the film's opening). The Witch of the Waste, instead of looking young and beautiful, is a huge heavyset woman that later becomes an old crone—as opposed to terrorizing the characters as a frightening villain, she is treated as a "grandmother" character and is even taken into Howl's home. Calcifer, who is a scary looking fire demon in the book, is portrayed as an adorable little flame in the film, although in two instances he blazes up into a wicked-looking blue flame strongly reminiscent of his appearance in the book. Finally, while in the book there is a 'Wizard Suliman' (an ally), in the film this is changed to a 'Madame Suliman' (the villain). Various other characters in the film are composites of the book's characters, with different motivations and personalities. Sophie and Howl themselves most strongly resemble Jones's characters (though Howl has a completely different background), but with gentler personas and less selfish motivations; that is, typical Jones character traits are softened into typical Miyazaki character traits.
Spoilers end here.
* Diana Wynne Jones did meet with representatives from Studio Ghibli but did not have any input or involvement in the production of the film. She's quoted as saying:
"It's fantastic. No, I have no input—I write books, not films. Yes it will be different from the book—in fact it's likely to be very different, but that's as it should be. It will still be a fantastic film."
* Miyazaki travelled to England in summer 2004 to give Jones a private viewing of the finished movie.
* The film was released on DVD and VHS March 7, 2006 in North America along with Whisper of the Heart and the long-awaited My Neighbor Totoro; and March 13, 2006 in the UK.
* This was the first traditionally-animated feature film theatrically released by Disney since Pooh's Heffalump Movie.