Howl’s Moving Castle is a Studio Ghibli animation, released in 2004 and based on the book of the same name by British author Dianna Wynne Jones.
The movie is set loosely in the first half of the 19th century in a European town that’s at war with a neighbouring kingdom. Sophie (voiced as a young girl by Emily Mortimer and as an old woman by Jean Simmons) is an earnest and kind teenage girl working in a hat store. She believes she’s plain and not worthy of attention, unlike her more glamorous sister, Lettie.
One day, as Sophie is harassed on the street by some thuggish young soldiers, an elusive and attractive young man interrupts and leads her away to safety. It turns out that the young man is Howl, a notorious wizard (voice of Christian Bale). The same evening, as she returns to her hat shop, Sophie encounters the Witch of the Waste (voice of Lauren Bacall), who casts a spell on her, turning her into an old crone. In horror, Sophie leaves her town in search of someone to help her break the curse and return her youth to her.
While Sophie roams the countryside, she comes across a friendly scarecrow. It leads her to the infamous Howl’s Moving Castle, a large, surreal, steam-punk-style vehicle that roams the land on large mechanical chicken legs. This is where the wizard Howl lives, along with his apprentice Markl (voice of Josh Hutcherson) and a comical fire demon called Calcifer (voice of Billy Crystal), who’s spellbound to stay in the castle and keep it moving and warm.
Sophie lets herself into the castle uninvited and makes a pact with Calcifer – she promises to help him escape from Howl if he helps break the curse on her. In the meantime, she nominates herself as Howl’s cleaning lady. She starts to learn all about Howl – how he became a wizard, how he transforms into a giant bird, and how he has been summoned by the king to fight in the war. Sophie finds herself falling in love with the mysterious Howl. He enlists her help, asking her to speak to the king’s adviser on his behalf.
As the war intensifies and bombs start dropping on Sophie’s town, Howl does his best to protect them all. Sophie is driven to free them all from the curses and spells that bind them all together.
Youth; beauty; the power of love and compassion; pacifism; war; fantasy; magic
Howl’s Moving Castle has some violence. For example:
- The movie is set during a war and there are many scenes of airships dropping bombs and bombs exploding. Some cities are bombed and others are shown on fire. Airships battle each other in the sky.
- A bombed ship is towed into the harbour while sailors scurry towards land.
- Soldiers attack each other with weapons.
- Two soldiers corner Sophie in an alley, threatening and harassing her.
- The king says, ‘I have a new battle plan … This time we are going to beat them to a pulp’.
- Flocks of enemy birds repeatedly chase and attack Howl.
- There are numerous explosions near the moving castle, which rip apart houses.
- Sophie crashes a small aircraft into the castle.
- Numerous characters have spells cast on them.
- There are widespread rumours that Howl tears the hearts out of pretty girls.
- Sophie angrily slams the table, which makes items fall off.
Howl’s Moving Castle has some sexual and romantic references. For example:
- Two men ogle Sophie and harass her in a laneway as she tries to walk by them. They stop her. One of them says, ‘I think she’s even cuter when she’s scared’.
- Howl discusses his love affair with the Witch of the Waste. He explains how she was so beautiful that he tried to pursue her before realising that she wasn’t how she seemed.
- Sophie finds herself falling in love with Howl.
- The Witch of the Waste says suggestively to a young man, ‘I look forward to your return, big boy’.
Alcohol, drugs and other substances
There is some use of substances in Howl’s Moving Castle, including when the witch smokes a cigar.
Nudity and sexual activity
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.
Ideas to discuss with your children
Howl’s Moving Castle is a brilliant flight of imaginative fantasy. The hand-drawn animation is visually spectacular and the imagery teeters between nightmarish horror and haunting beauty. There are powerful philosophical messages about pacifism, youth, beauty, love and compassion.
This movie is best suited to older children who can follow its complex plot. And although we recommend parental guidance for children aged 8-12 years because of the violence and scary scenes, the movie is likely to appeal most to this age group.
The main message from Howl’s Moving Castle is that youth and beauty aren’t always a valuable blessing given to the young. They can also be a burden, and ageing can bring peace and relief. The movie also has a strong anti-war message.
Values in this movie that you could reinforce with your children include the following:
- Beauty is about kindness, love and compassion and not just about physical appearance. It’s important to look for the beauty inside ourselves.
- Becoming older can be a positive experience. Age isn’t something to be feared.
- Love and affection can bring out the best in people.
This movie could also give you the chance to talk with your children about real-life issues like:
- the destructiveness of war and how to oppose it
- the fear of ageing
- vanity and greed.