The animated films of Studio Ghibli have simply been a delight for me to watch. Every time they have made a film, there has always been something wonderful in it that really has drawn me into them that keeps me entranced from start to finish. The films of Hayao Miyazaki are especially remarkable as you are swept up in his worlds filled with magic, heart, and atmosphere with just a little bit of darkness thrown in. Out of all the films that Miyazaki has directed, the one that he considered his finest film ever is his animated film from 2004, "Howl's Moving Castle" and it's one that I can certainly see why. It's a wonderful animated film to watch and one that has a lot of joy to be found within that certainly ranks among Ghibli and Miyazaki's best films and also one that left me feeling very happy by the end.
In a kingdom filled with witches and wizards, a young hatter named Sophie (Chieko Baisho) has been running her father's shop quietly with not much to do in her life. One day, her shop is visited by the Witch of the Waste (Akihiro Miwa) and after sternly standing up to her, she is cursed by the witch and ages into a ninety-year-old woman. Wanting to break her dreadful curse, Sophie leaves her shop and ends up coming across the moving castle of a wizard named Howl (Takuya Kimura) where she becomes the cleaning lady of the castle. She then discovers that Howl is caught up in a war between the kingdoms and from there, she tries to figure out how to undo her dreadful curse and help Howl with his own curse with the help of Howl's apprentice Markl (Ryūnosuke Kamiki) and a fire demon who moves the castle named Calcifer (Tatsuya Gashuin).
After watching this film, I could certainly see why this film is ranked very highly amongst Studio Ghibli's prestigious catalog and also why Hayao Miyazaki considers this film his magnum opus. While I personally don't think this is my absolute favorite film Miyazaki has made as that honor would go to "Spirited Away", this film does rank very highly among all the films he's made and I'm glad it did considering the film had somewhat of a complicated production. The film was to be directed by Mamoru Hosoda who would go on to direct excellent animated films at his own studio, Studio Chizu, including "Mirai" and "Belle". However, he and Ghibli execs about the film that they wanted to make and therefore he left the film with Miyazaki taking over not long after. Hosoda has had no regrets or ill will towards Ghibli over leaving the film and while I am curious about what his take on the film would've been like, I think the film we did end up getting is still terrific. The story is probably the most magical film that Miyazaki has ever made. The film is loosely based on a fantasy book of the same name written by Diana Wynne Jones and Ghibli really took certain elements of the book and spun them into gold. It's a wonderful story filled with a lot of tender moments and heart-racing scenes and contains some of the most powerful themes that Ghibli has tackled. My favorite scenes are the film include a scene where Sophie goes to the palace of the king to cover for Howl who has been invited there to participate in the war which kept you on edge throughout and the other where Howl takes Sophie to his secret garden which was so quiet and tender that I would've liked to visit it myself. Scenes like that are sprinkled throughout the film and they're all simply wonderful.
I also especially love the themes that Miyazaki tackles throughout the film. I think the themes that are absolutely nailed are the themes about aging and also learning to love others and accept yourself which I'll get more about later when I talk about the characters. The only theme in the film that didn't work as much for me was the hatred of war. Miyazaki included his anti-war statements in the film to voice his frustrations at the United States invading Iraq in 2003 and I do feel that the theme came across as being added last minute. Compared to the other themes tackled in the film, it wasn't nearly as fleshed out as it could've been and it really pales in comparison to other films where Miyazaki has tackled the theme like "Princess Mononoke". Still, it doesn't harm the film at all. As far as the animation goes, it once again is stunning. This film has a lot of beauty found within it coming from the beautiful scenery that reminded me of a village in the Swiss Alps, to the technology that looked like steampunk machinery. The titular castle in particular was a sight to behold as it consists of all sorts of random buildings and shackles which really helps make it different from what you would expect a moving castle to look like. A lot of great attention to detail is also once again put in the character animation including visible veins in the aging Sophie to small little moments to pay attention to story-wise including a ring that Howl puts on Sophie's finger. I love the careful attention put into every frame of the animation. Then we have the characters who are all so lovely. The relationship between Howl and Sophie was simply delightful and they have one of the finest romantic relationships I've seen in animation. We see both of these characters slowly peel away their insecurities to find their true selves with Howl becoming less cowardly and vain with him figuring out his own problems with his magic and Sophie becoming more confident and assertive as she navigates her elderly curse. They really feature some great development throughout the film. I also think the other characters are wonderful with Markl sharing some tender moments with Sophie, Calcifer being quite a funny presence, and even the Witch of the Waste starting to develop as her own layers are peeled away. These are some very well-defined and perfectly written characters.
And it really helps make "Howl's Moving Castle" simply an entrancing animated film to watch. The story has some amazing scenes and great themes, the animation is gorgeous and very well detailed, and the characters are perfectly written and developed. It certainly is one of Studio Ghibli's most magical and wonderful animated films and I cannot recommend it enough. It's an animated film that really moved me while watching and I cannot wait to have that feeling again when watching it.