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REVIEW – Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

June 25, 2012

FilmJuice have my review of Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Re-watching the film for the first time since it first appeared in a UK cinema, I was struck by the extent to which it is a microcosm for all the strengths and weaknesses of Miyazaki’s direction:  On the plus side, the animation is spectacular, the mood is uplifting without ever seeming false and the design is a profound expression of nostalgia for a sophisticated, metropolitan Europe that may never have existed in the first place. On the down side, the plotting is frequently nonsensical and the characters have so little depth that they struggle to command our interest, let alone our sympathies. As I put it in the review:

If you are one of those upper middle-class parents that have latched onto Miyazaki as a reliable source of non-violent and morally uplifting children’s entertainment then Howl’s Moving Castle is definitely the film for you. The animation, artwork and pacing are more than enough to keep the little ones amused while their parents sit in open-plan kitchens drawing up plans to take over a Tuscan bean farm or a gite in the Dordogne. However, if you are a grown-up looking for grown-up ideas and characters then Howl’s Moving Castle is a touch more problematic.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008) in which I suggested that Miyazaki’s attitudes towards humanity moved back and forth between flesh-rending misanthropy and warm-hearted sentimentality. In that piece, I concluded that Miyazaki tended to ‘do’ warm-hearted sentimentality a lot better than he did complex adult morality. Having recently re-watched both Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle, I now realise that my earlier diagnosis was entirely off base. The problem is not that Miyazaki struggles with adult morality, it is that he struggles with human psychology but that these struggles are less evident when they are presented as part of a film aimed directly at children. Indeed, both Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle suffer from the fact that they are films that revolve around entirely unconvincing love stories but because Ponyo presents itself as child-friendly, we are more inclined to forgive its lack of psychological foundation while Howl’s Moving Castle seems much more grown-up and so the lack of real characterisation is both obvious and grating.

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