Howl's Moving Castle movie review (2005) | Roger Ebert (2024)


Howl's Moving Castle movie review (2005) | Roger Ebert (1)

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Almost the first sight we see in "Howl's Moving Castle" is the castle itself, which looks as if it were hammered together in shop class by wizards inspired by the lumbering, elephantine war machines in "The Empire Strikes Back." The castle is an amazing visual invention, a vast collection of turrets and annexes, protuberances and afterthoughts, which makes its way across the landscape like a turtle in search of a rumble. I settled back in my seat, confident that Japan's Hayao Miyazaki had once again created his particular kind of animated magic, and that the movie would deserve comparison with "Spirited Away," "Princess Mononoke," "My Neighbor Totoro," "Kiki's Delivery Service" and the other treasures of the most creative animator in the history of the art form.


But it was not to be. While the movie contains delights and inventions without pause and has undeniable charm, while it is always wonderful to watch, while it has the Miyazaki visual wonderment, it's a disappointment, compared to his recent work. Adapted from a British novel by Diana Wynne Jones, it resides halfway between the Brothers Grimm and "The Wizard of Oz," with shape-shifting that includes not merely beings but also objects and places.

Chief among the shape-shifters is the castle itself, which can swell with power and then shrivel in defeat. Inside the castle are spaces that can change on a whim, and a room with a door that opens to -- well, wherever it needs to open. The Castle roams the Waste Lands outside two warring kingdoms, which seem vaguely 19th-century European; it is controlled by Howl himself, a young wizard much in demand but bedeviled with personal issues.

The story opens with Sophie (voice by Emily Mortimer), a hatmaker who sits patiently at her workbench while smoke-belching trains roar past her window. When she ventures out, she's attacked by obnoxious soldiers but saved by Howl (voice by Christian Bale), who is himself being chased by inky globs of shapeless hostility. This event calls Sophie's existence to the attention of Howl's enemy, the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who fancies Howl for herself, and in a fit of jealousy, turns Sophie into a wrinkled old woman, bent double, and voiced now by Jean Simmons. For most of the rest of the movie, the heroine will be this ancient crone; we can remind ourselves that young Sophie is trapped inside, but the shape-switch slows things down, as if Grandmother were creeping through the woods to Red Riding Hood's house.

Leaving town in shame and confusion, Sophie meets a scarecrow (Crispin Freeman) who bounces around on his single wooden leg and leads her to Howl's castle. Sophie names the scarecrow Turniphead, and we think perhaps a lion and a tin man will be turning up before long, but no. Nor is the castle run by a fraudulent wizard behind a curtain. Howl is the real thing, a shape-shifter who sometimes becomes a winged bird of prey. So is his key assistant Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a fiery being whose job is to supply the castle's energy. Sophie also meets Markl (Josh Hutcherson), Howl's aide-de-camp, and sets about appointing herself the castle's housekeeper and maid of all work.


The plot deepens. Howl is summoned to serve both of the warring kingdoms, which presents him with a problem, complicated by the intervention of Madame Suliman, a grotesque sorceress voiced by Blythe Danner, who reminds us of Yubaba, the sorceress who ran the floating bathhouse in "Spirited Away." These bloated old madame types seem to exert a fascination for Miyazaki scarcely less powerful than his fondness for young heroines. Howl cravenly sends old Sophie to represent him before King Sariman, and on her way there, she gets into a race with the Witch of the Waste, who haunts the hinterlands where the Castle roams. Sophie is obviously trapped in a web of schemes that's too old and too deep for her to penetrate, and there comes a moment when defeat seems certain and even Calcifer despairs.

All of this is presented, as only Miyazaki can, in animation of astonishing invention and detail. The Castle itself threatens to upstage everything else that happens in the movie, and notice the way its protuberances move in time with its lumbering progress, not neglecting the sphincteresque gun turret at the rear. Sophie, old or young, never quite seems to understand and inhabit this world; unlike Kiki of the delivery service or Chihiro, the heroine of "Spirited Away," she seems more witness than heroine. A parade of weird characters comes onstage to do their turns, but the underlying plot grows murky and, amazingly for a Miyazaki film, we grow impatient at spectacle without meaning.

I can't recommend the film, and yet I know if you admire Miyazaki as much I do you'll want to see it, anyway. When his movies are working and on those rare occasions when they are not, Miyazaki nevertheless is a master who, frame by frame, creates animated compositions of wonderment. Pete Docter (writer of "Toy Story") and John Lasseter (director of "Toy Story"), his great American supporters, have supervised the English dubbing; online anime sites say however the Japanese voices are more in character (we'll be able to compare on the DVD).

In the meantime, the big screen is the only way to appreciate the remarkable detail of the Castle, which becomes one of the great unique places in the movies.

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Film Credits

Howl's Moving Castle movie review (2005) | Roger Ebert (9)

Howl's Moving Castle (2005)

Rated PGfor frightening images and brief mild language

119 minutes


Emily Mortimeras Young Sophie

Jean Simmonsas Old Sophie

Lauren Bacallas Witch of the Waste

Christian Baleas Howl

Billy Crystalas Calcifer

Blythe Danneras Madame Suliman

Crispin Freemanas Prince Turnip

Josh Hutchersonas Markl

Jena Maloneas Lettie

Directed by

  • Hayao Miyazaki

Written by

  • Hayao Miyazaki
  • Cindy Davis Hewitt
  • Donald H. Hewitt

Based on the novel by

  • Diana Wynne Jones

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Howl's Moving Castle movie review (2005) | Roger Ebert (2024)


Howl's Moving Castle movie review (2005) | Roger Ebert? ›

Almost the first sight we see in "Howl's Moving Castle" is the castle itself, which looks as if it were hammered together in shop class by wizards inspired by the lumbering, elephantine war machines in "The Empire Strikes Back." The castle is an amazing visual invention, a vast collection of turrets and annexes, ...

Is Howl's Moving Castle worth watching? ›

Howl's Moving Castle is a great offering from visionary writer and director Hayao Miyazaki. On a technical level, the film is a masterpiece. Beautifully animated with a gorgeous score and charming characters, Howl's Moving Castle also has a very nice anti-war message, and provides a fun love story.

Is Howl's Moving Castle the best Ghibli movie? ›

The movie's message of love and kindness resonates with audiences of all ages, making it one of the best films created by Studio Ghibli. Unlike its predecessors, Howl's Moving Castle is a love story.

What makes Howl's Moving Castle so good? ›

Miyazaki's directorial trademarks are here in spades. Most of them lend strength and power to the film: his passion for open landscapes, his vision of the power and horror of war, the uncompromised way his movies work to empower children, and especially girls.

Are there any inappropriate scenes in Howl's Moving Castle? ›

Howl's Moving Castle has some nudity and sexual activity. For example: There are several romantic kisses. There is one scene where Howl's buttocks are shown briefly after he has had a bath.

Is there a deeper meaning to Howl's Moving Castle? ›

The castle mirrors Howl's inner struggles and growth, changing with him throughout the film to represent his personal journey. The film explores complex themes such as humanity, selfhood, and compassion, making it a story that reveals more with each viewing.

Why did Sophie's hair stay grey? ›

While I was looking for a screenshot of Howl's Moving Castle, I stumbled across the same question spread over the internet: “Why is Sophie's hair still silver at the end?” I was surprised that the answer most readily given was, “because she still has the curse.”

Why did Howl fall in love with Sophie? ›

And really, Howl was only ever after the challenge of the thing. He came to admire much more about Sophie, but it was the spell and her own magic, and the way everything was all mixed up that initially drew him to her.

Why did Howl's hair turn black? ›

Everyone has had a bad hair day. However, few people gave up on life over an easily fixable mistake. Thanks to Sophie's cleaning, Howl's potions got mixed around, leading his hair to change from blond to ginger. Howl accuses Sophie of ruining him and proceeds to throw a tantrum as his hair changes to black.

Why did Calcifer take Howl's heart? ›

Howl had given his heart to Calcifer. This was the contract between them; the heart kept Calcifer alive, and in return Calcifer put his magic at Howl's disposal. Sophie uses her ability of bringing things to life to free Calcifer, thus breaking the contract between him and Howl.

Why did Howl become slimy? ›

Howl is incredibly vain, and spends plenty of time in the morning putting on vanity spells and fixing his glamorous outfits. His cleaning lady, Sophie, once interfered with his beauty potions, and he threw a fit that involved summoning the spirits of darkness and dripping green slime.

What was Howl's weakness? ›

Sophie soon learns that Howl is a powerful wizard who is nevertheless tormented by the weakness of his heart and is struggling to live in the midst of warring countries.

Why did the girl turn old in Howl's Moving Castle? ›

Sophie's magical talents attract the attention of the Witch of the Waste. Mistaking Sophie for her sister, Lettie Hatter, and believing that Sophie was withholding some information she needed regarding Howl, the Witch of the Waste curses Sophie into becoming an old woman.

What was the witch of the waste smoking? ›

The Witch of the Waste has a taste for cigars. When Sophie asks her, “Do you have to keep smoking that? It smells terrible,” she responds, “Don't deny an old witch her pleasures, young lady.” Another scene shows a man sitting in an alley with a bottle (presumably alcohol) beside him.

Could Howl see through Sophie's curse in the movie? ›

Howl can see through the spell and knows that, theoretically, Sophie is a young woman, just not who she actually is. He devotes a large amount of time to secretly trying to break the curse. In the book, Sophie is technically placing the spell on herself.

Is Howl's Moving Castle a good anime? ›

With its breathtaking visuals and heartfelt storytelling, "Howl's Moving Castle" stands as a true masterpiece of animation and storytelling that captivates viewers of all ages. Content collapsed.

Is Howl's Moving Castle a masterpiece? ›

“Howl's Moving Castle” is rich in beautiful animated scenery, interactive, interesting characters, and powerful themes. “Howl's Moving Castle is a complex yet beautiful film.

Is Howl's Moving Castle good for adults? ›

Great Fantasy Book for the Whole Family

That's as an adult with no children, who has never seen the anime. This book is playful, clever, funny, and subtle. The Wizard Howl is a huge drama queen, Sophie is a bossy old lady, Calcifer is a whiny but lovable fire demon.

Does Howl's Moving Castle have a happy ending? ›

Sophie literally holds Howl's heart in her hands when she turns young. Her youth represents her willingness to accept Howl's love now that he is both emotionally and magically capable of choosing to be with her in return. The other happy endings in this chapter are sketched out pretty briefly.

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