Howl’s Moving Castle: A Magical Animated Tale for the Ages

By Philip Murphy

Most children spend a good deal of time imagining what it would be like to be all grown up. Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), the shy 18-year-old heroine of the animated feature Howl’s Moving Castle, gets to find out first hand what it’s like when the vile Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall) casts a spell on her that transforms her into a 90-year-old woman.

Suddenly, Sophie has to cope with all the pains and limitations of old age. But, surprisingly, these restrictions seem to embolden Sophie (her elder voice is provided by Jean Simmons) to tackle bigger challenges than she ever would have dreamed of doing in her youth.

One of the challenges she faces is eluding the Witch of the Waste’s  oozing henchmen, who pursue her everywhere. Another is aiding Howl (Christian Bale), a handsome and powerful young wizard, whose mysterious castle roams the countryside slipping in and out of fog banks, as well as time and space portals. Sophie seeks shelter in Howl’s ramshackle castle, but finds it so filthy that she sets to work cleaning it up. Here she encounters Howl’s energetic young apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and the talkative fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal), who powers the castle and has a mysterious bond with Howl that Sophie must unravel.

On top of all of this, there is a war going on and the King’s wizard, the powerful Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner) means to enlist Howl on the side of the King, despite Howl’s efforts to remain neutral and bring peace to the countryside.

Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, this film transports viewers to another time and place resembling Alsace at the turn of the 20th century, when coal and steam-powered trains and motorcars, not to mention battleships and flying machines, began to litter the landscape. Amid these signs of industrial “progress,” witches and wizards cavort and weave spells in a deadly game where people’s souls and the fate of nations hang in the balance. By turns stunningly beautiful, silly and whimsical, frankly sentimental, and dark and forbidding, the film’s central theme of what age can teach youth is a good message for kids and adults alike.

Academy Award-winning director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) weaves animated magic that will dazzle American audiences just as it has done in Japan and elsewhere to the tune of $210 million so far. America’s growing fascination with animé (Japanese animation), will only be enhanced by this splendid gem.

Rated PG, this film should work for kids age 5 and up, as there’s no imagery any more frightening than in Snow White or other traditional Disney films.

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Philip Murphy covers family-oriented films for United Parenting Publications.