PLOT SUMMARY: Sophie, a timid girl working in a hat shop is cursed by the witch of the waste to look like a 90-years-old woman. She strikes a bargain to remove the curse with a fire demon who powers the moving castle of a wizard called Howl.
REVIEW SUMMARY: This is a gorgeous, enjoyable movie with engaging characters. However, it works better as its own movie as an adaptation of the book, which I understand was the intention of the director. I’m a casual fan of both Miyazaki and the book, so I enjoyed both the film and the book on their own terms. That said, the plot changes that he made in the adaptation could have worked better with a clearer script, since he seems to draw on elements of the book without explaining them, which makes parts of the plot confusing for people who did not read the book.
*SPOILERS FOR BOOK AND MOVIE BELOW*
RATING AS A MOVIE: 4/5
The movie features gorgeous visuals. The backgrounds are absolutely brimming with beauty and details, and the designs for the world are lovely. I really like the pseudo-19th-Century setting, and want to watch the movie again just to LOOK at everything—the crowds, the costumes, the steampunk machinery. There’s always a lot of people and activity in each scene, and clearly tons of loving attention was paid to these. It really shows. There are some breathtaking scenes too, like the scene with the falling stars and when the characters look at the scenery out of the castle. Wow. Loved it all.
An engaging and believable characters and love story. The plot, which is loosely based on the book, emphasizes the love story in a believable and quite lovely way— I found myself completely buying the romance, which I did not in the book. This is a huge improvement over the book.
And let’s face it, the book’s plot is a little meandering and aimless in some way, although always charming. The movie’s substitution of a more war-oriented plot, while a little preachy (and I’m a bit tired of those honestly) works well enough on its own merits, though it could have used some work to improve clarity, both for elements that are clearly based on the book and those that are not. However, the movie does features some powerful scenes not in the book. Howl’s curse, for one, has a MUCH greater emotional impact, and I prefer the movie’s version to the book. The movie also features some plot points not in the book which, again, have a greater emotional impact. Howl’s gift of the flower field door, for example; or Sophie moving Calcifer out of the castle, and the aftermath. All powerfully emotional scenes, where the book barely featured such.
As a note, if you read the book before seeing the movie, you’ll probably understand some of the obscure elements of the film better than those who did not read it. For example, how was Sophie able to save Howl at the end? The book makes it clear though the movie does not.
In the plot:
Some plot threads are left hanging, especially if you haven’t read the book. For example, the nature of Sophie’s magical gift is only implied, whereas in the book it’s spelled out and helps to explain some things she’s able to do in the movie, which otherwise appear random or merely lucky.
The filmmaker also appears to have done something with star and fire demon power which he does not spell out in the movie, though it could have been explained since it seems to be based on the book’s vision of such magic. If you look closely, for example, you’ll see that the image of the fallen stars at the end are the same as some images where magic is used by Suliman (see the dancing figures around the witch of the waste in the palace), and likely others.
I’ll cover most of this in my book vs. movie section below. For now I’ll just say that I dislike the witch’s and the dog’s designs. I was never fond of such grotesque/oddball designs in Anime, where a more naturalistic ones would have done just as well, but it’s a matter of personal taste.
SOME PLOT INCONSISTENCIES EXPLAINED?
1) The fact that Sophie transforms into a young girl occasionally is never explained. However, people who criticize this should remember that in the book the dog was able to briefly throw off his spell. So although this did not happen to SOPHIE in the book, there is a basis for this happening. I also believe that it’s implied that Sophie’s own gift helps her to almost-cure herself this way, though the curse sways in power due to her level of awareness or confidence at certain stages. One almost gets the impression that Sophie is sometimes happy to retire, pun intended, into the curse, which frees her to say and do things she never dared as a young woman.
2) In the movie, Howl is shown evading the war recruitment but he is also shown going into the battlefield. At first I agreed with other reviewers that this is an inconsistent plot point, but then I thought that he seems to try to sabotage the war effort and perhaps save civilians by doing so, which makes the situation and his character more complex and which I actually like.
3) There’s also the nature of his curse, which is very different from the book and while in my opinion it’s actually better in the film since the emotional impact is greater, it’s not thoroughly explained. There’s an implication that using such magic eventually makes the user lose his grip and become a monster, much like Terry Pratchett’s borrowing in his discworld books, where witches who borrow the minds of animals too long eventually forget their way “out” of the animal’s mind and become that animal, never returning to their own body. Not sure if that’s what Miyazaki meant but it would explain it.
RATING AS AN ADAPTATION OF THE BOOK: 3/5
Most (but not all) characters are retained with their personalities intact. Howl is a vain and somewhat cowardly young man, but good-humored and kindly, and rather sexy, which he was in the book but not to such an extent. Sophie changes from a timid young girl to a crotchety old woman, and gains confidence as a result. Calcifer is a somewhat obnoxious but lovable fire demon. Michael/Markel is changed into a young boy, but I think that the book’s subplot with Sophie’s sister would have been superfluous anyway in this movie, and I’m guessing that this change reflects this. And finally, I absolutely loved Mr. Turnip Head (the scarecrow) in this adaptation! He’s one of the few things that actually improve on the book, even if his actual identity is different than the book (kind of a… swap.) Unfortunately, other characters are either changed or dropped out, so it’s hard to say whether they were treated well. More on this below.
Some of this was already covered, but there are several plot changes that alter the plot rather significantly. In particular, and most disappointing, is the fact that some great plot twists were dropped due to these changes, especially related to the witch’s fire demon and what she did to the wizard and the prince. Additionally, as noted elsewhere, wizard Suliman is merged with Howl’s old mentor, and both of their roles are thus significantly altered. I supposed that Miyazaki felt that they were neither important enough to the plot and that he needed another powerful character, or needed the mentor to be more significant, or… something. I like Suliman’s role well enough in the movie, but this does affect other aspects of the book, like the fact that the lost prince is never a factor in the plot except at the very end, and then he’s another prince entirely.
There’s war-related plot which features heavily in the movie, whereas in the book it was only a threat. I seem to recall some reviewers seeing it as a commentary on some former or contemporary wars, and I already expressed my opinion about this.
First and foremost, the witch of the waste IS apparently just motivated by love (or lust) and nothing else, which is a VERY big change which will baffle book-readers and causes some significant plot twists to be dropped entirely. I don’t understand this choice but it’s a negative one not only due to the plot twists being dropped, but it turns Sophie into a bit of a fool in agreeing to forgive her so quickly. It’s just… hm. I don’t know. Like Miyazaki didn’t really want the movie to have any human villains, and the real villain being the war. I guess that’s it?
The dog is just… there. I’m not sure why he was even retained since he’s completely different than the book, where he was important to the plot in some ways.
Sophie’s family gets a very short shrift. I can understand reducing two sisters into one since the whole Letty-Martha subplot is not necessary to the movie. I believe this may also be the reason why Michael’s age is reduced. Oh yeah and Fannie is… well, you’ll see what she did and you won’t like it.
Should you watch this movie? I say yes. Yeah, I think some plot points should not have been altered, and others should have been improved. But it’s… really its own beast compared to the book, and offers a somewhat different experience. I very much enjoyed both on their own terms.