A castle of confusion: Studio Ghibli’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’

Spoilers ahead!



Studio Ghibli’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle,’ a love story between the cursed Sophie and the powerful wizard Howl, has gorgeous animation and a bittersweet yet simple score.

In a packed theatre with limited showtimes, Studio Ghibli Fest struck again with its iconic love story, “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Studio Ghibli is one of the most well-recognized animation studios in Japan, known for films such as “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

Because Studio Ghibli is based in Japan, they show a selection of films in the United States for a limited time in select theaters throughout the year. I was able to grab a ticket to see “Howl’s Moving Castle,” directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

This movie follows the hard-working, independent and strong-willed Sophie, who is cursed by the Witch of the Waste and turns into an old woman. Unable to speak a word, she flees into the hills, where a moving castle roams. This castle belongs to the charismatic, emotional, and insecure wizard Howl, whiny and bright fire demon Calcifer, and a curious and energetic little boy named Markl.

This film was an interesting twist on what could have been an overused plot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was good. With a fun mix of characters who had amazing chemistry right off the bat, I was hopeful. Even the mute scarecrow bouncing alongside our group of protagonists was incredibly endearing. As can be expected from Ghibli, the animation included a phenomenal use of realistic backgrounds and the studio’s iconic character style. The hopeful and bittersweet score by Joe Hisaishi perfectly conveyed Sophie’s inner conflicts and love for Howl. This movie just missed the mark in its execution, due to nothing other than lack of time. The movie tries to capture themes of environmentalism, war, peace, pride, corruption, coming of age, and redemption, all within a two-hour time frame. While such a feat is possible in storytelling, this movie unfortunately proves how difficult it can be.

One of the elements of the film that suffers from lack of time is the rules of Sophie’s curse, which are, in a word, inconsistent. We first see this inconsistency early on in the film, during Sophie’s first night in Howl’s castle. When Howl checks on her while she is sleeping, she is suddenly young again, but we are never given a reason why. It is presumed that the curse fades as she falls in love with Howl, but it’s never stated outright. For the viewer, who is watching the film for the first time and doesn’t know the nuances of the story, this is confusing, to say the least.

In my opinion, the structure and pacing of the first part of the movie are perfect. However, by the time we hit the second act, after meeting our cast of characters, the movie becomes incredibly rushed–it seems like a lot is going on, but also as if nothing is really happening. Sophie’s struggle to break her curse is almost forgotten entirely as she tries to help Howl avoid fighting in the war that has begun.

The phenomenal animation does not make up for the slow progression of the plot or the overcrowded storytelling. Even the ending in itself was disappointing and predictable. Of course, Sophie and Howl end up together, but what really disappointed me was how they implemented the twist. As I mentioned earlier, there is a mute scarecrow who follows our protagonist. In the end, we discover that this scarecrow, otherwise known as Turnip Head, is the prince of one of the kingdoms. It is because of this missing prince the war begins in the land, so this reveal should be exciting; when the prince is found, the war ends. However, the curse that makes him a scarecrow is broken when Turnip Head receives a kiss from his true love…Sophie, who ends up with Howl. You see the problem here. This is a confusing, out-of-nowhere twist that is, in a word, jarring.

That being said, I implore you to go watch the movie for yourself. It’s streaming on HBO Max and is available to rent from the comfort of your own home, so you don’t have to fight over $15 seats in a cramped theater. The big screen may help viewers to more fully enjoy the animation, but for the confused, rushed mess of storytelling, I think I’ll stay at home this time.