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Should I Watch..? 'Howl's Moving Castle' (2004)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's Japanese poster

Film's Japanese poster

What's the big deal?

Howl's Moving Castle is an animated Japanese fantasy film released in 2004 and was written and directed by the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki. Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, the film follows a young woman who is cursed by a witch and finds herself caught up in the service of an enigmatic wizard on the eve of a bloody war. The film's Japanese cast is led by Chieko Baisho, Takuya Kimura, Akihiro Miwa and Tatsuya Gashuin while the English cast features Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall and Billy Crystal. The film is greatly influenced by Miyazaki's opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and contains themes of pacifism, compassion, love and loyalty. Released to critical acclaim, the film would become one of the most successful films in Japan's history with total global earnings of $236 million as well as earning an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film.


What's it about?

In a faraway land that resembles early 20th century Europe, the fantastical exists alongside the more mundane with steam-powered motor vehicles and flying machines and tales of powerful magic beyond the city walls. For young Sophie, a shy milliner with little interest beyond her hats, a journey to visit her sister Lettie is complicated after she encounters a mysterious young man who is clearly gifted with powerful magic abilities. Unsure who her escort actually is, Sophie returns home and finds herself cursed by the villainous Witch Of The Waste who not only transforms Sophie into a ninety-year-old woman but forbids her from being able to discuss the curse with anyone.

Distraught at the sudden change, Sophie sneaks out of town and journeys into the fields beyond in a hope to find someone able to break her curse. After meeting an apparently sentient scarecrow, she is led to the fabled moving castle of the wizard Howl - reputed to be one of the most evil sorcerers in the land. Inviting herself in, Sophie meets Howl's young apprentice Markl and pretends to be a new housekeeper. Making a deal with the fire demon Calcifer (the source of power for the castle), Sophie is astonished to discover that Howl is the handsome man she met earlier before her curse and is her best hope for recovery.

Trailer (US release)

What's to like?

By now, it's no secret that Studio Ghibli films are among the most beautifully illustrated and animated movies out there. But personally, I reckon that Howl's Moving Castle is possibly their best work to date. The film combines a wonderfully realised urban steampunk environment that feels reminiscent of those old Professor Layton games with magnificent natural vistas of snow-capped mountains and glittering lakes. The quality of the animation feels smoother and more fluid than earlier films, say Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki films always feel special and this is no different, sweeping you up in a flight of fancy that few other filmmakers can. The best visuals are reserved for the titular castle itself as it awkwardly clanks across the landscape like something that escaped from a Terry Gilliam short from the old Monty Python days. Despite being a ramshackle collection of chimneys, towers, sheds and balconies, it still exudes a character that is possibly the most unique presence in cinema.

Miyazaki is also a storyteller who deals in some abstract concepts and themes and this is no different in that respect either. The film contains themes of love and loyalty, the wisdom that comes with age as well as messages of pacifism and female empowerment - something that Pixar never quite manage in their movies, even in their more reflective moments. Miyazaki's intentions are two-fold in his films, delivering a wonderfully surreal and unique fairy tale that also contain positive messages on a variety of issues, usually associated with the natural world. Howl's Moving Castle is an absolute visual feast and together with the stirring soundtrack, it easily sweeps you up into this strange and mystical world and takes you on an adventure unlike any other.

The castle itself is a Terry Gilliam-esque monstrosity, displaying character all by itself and giving audiences something truly unique to witness in a film.

The castle itself is a Terry Gilliam-esque monstrosity, displaying character all by itself and giving audiences something truly unique to witness in a film.

Fun Facts

  • Sophie's hometown is modelled after the city of Colmar in France which Miyazaki visited for inspiration. The film's producer Toshio Suzuki stated that Miyazaki became fascinated with the story when he read the original novel and wondered how the castle itself moved, eventually deciding that the castle walked on chicken legs.
  • Miyazaki travelled to the UK in the summer of 2004 for a personal screening for the book's author, Diana Wynne Jones. The film wasn't released in the UK until late September in 2005.
  • Both Christian Bale and Lauren Bacall are fans of Miyazaki's work. Bale offered his voice after watching Spirited Away for any role in this film, not expecting to land the lead role. Bacall met Miyazaki at a subtitled screening in New York and reportedly asked him if he was married!
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What's not to like?

My only issue with Miyazaki films is that occasionally, they can become a bit too obtuse. His films use symbolism and metaphor so heavily that the film's narrative can become a little lost. Sadly, it does happen here - the film's opening half is intriguing and exciting but it doesn't last and the story struggles to maintain your interest for the whole thing. Not that you're ever bored, of course - the film is far too gorgeous for that - but the film feels confusing at times and it doesn't have the good grace to answer all of its questions. I wanted to know more about Howl and his own issues and where the castle originated.

It's also worth noting that the film is wildly different to the book in many respects. Calcifer's portrayal in the movie is very different to his more demonic appearance in the book and the film avoids both Sophie's other sister Martha (other than a passing mention) and moving the story to rural Wales as the book does. I'm afraid that I've never had the pleasure of reading Jones' novel but fans may be disappointed to see what Miyazaki has done to possibly beloved characters. But other than this and what I felt was a disappointing climax, this is another winner from the masters at Ghibli.

Considering that every frame is hand drawn and coloured, the film is utterly bewitching to watch. Ghibli have outdone themselves with this picture.

Considering that every frame is hand drawn and coloured, the film is utterly bewitching to watch. Ghibli have outdone themselves with this picture.

Should I watch it?

I feel that Howl's Moving Castle lacks a little of the focus from some of their other films but maybe my high standards have been a result of how great their output usually is. This is a visually stirring, inventive and enjoyable adventure for the whole family that offers thrills, comedy, romance and tragedy and helps redefine the potential for animated movies to affect their audience. Studio Ghibli have a habit of crafting some truly special films and this is another one.

Great For: fans of Studio Ghibli or anime in general, Miyazaki's reputation as an artistic filmmaker, family viewing nights

Not So Great For: strugglers with subtitles (although the English dub is easily available if needed), possibly fans of the book, viewers in need of context

What else should I watch?

Few movie studios generate as much passion in their followers as Studio Ghibli, who are now the premier producers of anime. I haven't seen a bad film of theirs yet - their bewitching My Neighbour Totoro is a wonderfully enchanting fantasy that is uniquely Japanese in tone but still accessible to audiences worldwide. The same can be said for Spirited Away, an equally stunning fable based in Kami folklore which won Miyazaki his first Academy Award. Princess Mononoke brought the studio international recognition which continues to enjoy today and deserves. Other films from Ghibli worth checking out include Kiki's Delivery Service, Grave Of The Fireflies and Ponyo.

The only equivalent animation studio I can think of that is near-universally hailed is Pixar who have arguably overtaken Disney themselves. Ever since Toy Story announced their arrival as the pioneers of CG animation, Pixar films have generally been warmly received by critics and audiences alike with highlights such as Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, WALL-E and Inside Out. They do occasionally drop the ball and not every release becomes a blockbuster - The Good Dinosaur is an example of a middling Pixar film that maybe deserved better - but Pixar are just as good at CG as Studio Ghibli are with traditional animation.

Main Cast

RoleJapanese voice castEnglish voice cast

Sophie Hatter (young)

Chieko Baisho

Emily Mortimer

Sophie Hatter (old)

Chieko Baisho

Jean Simmons


Takuya Kimura

Christian Bale

Witch Of The Waste

Akihiro Miwa

Lauren Bacall


Tatsuya Gashuin

Billy Crystal


Ryunosuke Kamiki

Josh Hutcherson


Haruko Kato

Blythe Danner


Yayoi Kazuki

Jena Malone

Technical Info

*based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones

DirectorHayao Miyazaki


Hayao Miyazaki*

Running Time

119 minutes

Release Date (UK)

23rd September, 2005




Animation, Adventure, Fantasy

Academy Award Nominations

Best Animated Feature

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

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