(My thoughts on Howl’s Moving Castle, a film released in 2004, which I only saw a few weeks ago. Warning for spoilers if you haven’t seen this film but plan to.)
Howl’s Moving Castle was, visually, a very beautiful film, but that was neither unexpected nor unprecedented because Studio Ghibli’s films usually are. In fact, most animated films look pretty good. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that didn’t amaze me to some extent.
And I was duly amazed by the art in this film. A testament to the vision and ingenuity of the team behind this film is Howl’s moving castle itself. This lumbering giant is an arbitrary construction of metal conduits, turrets, cottages and cables – a daring vision that is instantly interesting. I was very excited to see the interior but unfortunately, we only get to see a bit of it. I wish we had gotten to spend more time inside the castle, and explore more of its spaces.
I also loved the landscapes, the colours and the nuances of the various places that we see in snippets throughout the film. It was rich, warm and bright, and it allowed me to experience at least a modicum of the wonder that Sophie, our protagonist, must have felt when she saw it all for the first time. It was the strongest aspect of the film for me and it’s what I remember most vividly.
The narrative, on the other hand, was rather bland. It might seem strange that I feel this way about a story caught between magic and machinery, with all the potential to turn a simple narrative into one that is meaningful and moving. That’s all it had though – potential. There were really wonderful moments – such as Sophie’s first encounter with the castle and her joy at seeing the world in a way she never had before – but these moments were not enough to make up for the unremarkable plot.
I felt rather let down by the story because I was really excited at first. The first thirty minutes or so of the film were outstanding. Sophie’s characterisation was brilliantly done – we immediately identify her as industrious, modest and very low on the self-esteem spectrum, so much so that she seemed rather accepting of a curse that had aged her half a century. In fact, ‘Grandma Sophie’ was a delightful character to behold. I’ve never seen ageing depicted in such a positive light in any story before. Rather than moping around after being turned into an elderly person, Sophie proceeds to comment on the best aspects of being old – such as not having to mind her words as much. Her positivity made her likeable and I became interested in how her story would unfold.
It unfolded very quickly.
The problem partly was that it was all too rushed. Before I knew it, Sophie was declaring her love for Howl and even after watching the film twice, I have no idea when that had happened. When he had cooked breakfast for his new employee? Or when he had thrown that tantrum after having his shampoo mixed up? Or when he had sent her off disguised as his mother to a meeting he was dreading? Seriously, why did she fall in love with him?
It would have made sense to me if there had been more interaction between Howl and Sophie, before the both of them plunge into love and happily ever after. Perhaps it was love at first sight. After all, Howl did make a decent first impression. Dressed like a prince from a fairy-tale, and enigmatic and charming to boot, it’s easy to see why Sophie would be taken in by him. I don’t believe in love at first sight and accordingly, I would never understand or experience it. But I accept that there are people out there who do believe in it and therefore, it will happen to them. Maybe Sophie is one of them.
Howl’s love for Sophie seemed even more unlikely than Sophie’s love for Howl. Even if he did, as a child, get a glimpse of her, why would he fall in love with her? And when did the story ever show that he was falling in love with her? He makes a quick declaration somewhere in the last quarter of the movie but it just didn’t seem likely to me that a person as vain and childish as him would hurry up and fall in love with the cleaning lady he barely knew.
I may sound like I really don’t like Howl, but the truth is, I really don’t care about Howl. I’ll admit that I was curious about him at the beginning. He says very little and his eccentricities and peculiar powers made him an intriguing character. In spite of his youthful appearance, he seemed far older and more dangerous. But he isn’t really, and it doesn’t take us long to find that out. At times he’s heroic and at times, he’s selfish and cowardly. He’s a bit absorbed in his own perspective and doesn’t seem too concerned about the things that don’t immediately concern him. He devotes considerable effort to fighting the little battles but he flees from the war. To be clear, I don’t think any of this is wrong. He’s just an ordinary character, and while he’s not a bad person, he’s not particularly great either. I will concede that he does undergo some rapid maturity after meeting Grandma Sophie but even so, he fails to impress.
And that’s pretty much Howl’s Moving Castle. It looks beautiful and feels intriguing at first, but the story itself is quite underwhelming. Love stories are just very difficult to pull off in a single film, especially when the film is also trying very hard to tell its audience about war and compassion. Howl’s Moving Castle felt distracted and disjointed, so as much as I tried to like it, I just couldn’t.
You can find more of my reviews at: ennadune.wordpress.com