Navigating anime movies can be difficult for parents who aren’t familiar with the genre. It is my desire that this post will serve as a guide so you can enjoy Howl’s Moving Castle with your children.
As always, use your own discretion when selecting movies for your family.
Howl’s Moving Castle Summary
Simple Sophie doesn’t want much in life: she’s happy just making hats and watching other people have excitement. She certainly never imagined she would be bewitched into an old lady! Sophie soon finds herself among more magic than she knows what to do with when she is swept up into a magnificent moving castle, owned by the great and mysterious wizard Howl. Can Howl reverse her curse, or will she be the one to transform him instead?
Howl’s Moving Castle Information
Howl’s Moving Castle is as close to a fairy tale retelling as Studio Ghibli gets. While it is an adaptation of a children’s fantasy novel by the same name, it’s all the things a Disney version is not: no Broadway-style song-and-dance, no anthropomorphic animal sidekicks, and no erasing the darker elements.
In fact, those darker elements- chiefly, a looming war – is what makes it so unique in my mind, while simultaneously being a common complaint amongst critics. On the one hand, the movie is about the transformative power of love, yet it is also about the often senseless destruction of war. The “message” about violence is exactly what you would expect from famous pacifist Miyazaki.
While I greatly admire Miyazaki’s bold attempt to weave together diametrically opposite themes (love, war, and magic), the balance wasn’t quite right and admittedly it can feel very erratic or even schizophrenic at times.
Is there a villain? Not really, not in the Disney sense.
Is there a plot? Sort of.
It’s definitely more slice of life than a straightforward fantasy/adventure story. The plot is at best uneven, but in my opinion, the brilliant characters more than make up for it. I do feel that like Spirited Away, this is a movie that improves with subsequent viewings.
As in My Neighbor Totoro, the characters inhabit a quaint world on the cusp of modernity with a dash of fantasy. Think Harry Potter set in the 1800s. The titular moving castle is cozy-with-a-capital-C, not to mention wondrous, and the spectacular lands it traverses are as beautiful as they are inviting. Far and away, though, the best part of this movie is the characters. Not only are protagonists Sophie and Howl wonderfully lovable, so are the periphery ones like cantankerous Calcifer, the doddering old witch, plucky Turniphead, and Markl the scamp.
Sophie and Howl are in a category all their own. On one level, their narrative is a very loose version of Beauty and the Beast – a story of internal vs. external transformation and how love makes us better people. Sophie changes from a quiet, passive, resigned woman who acts (and then looks) prematurely old into a bold young woman of action. Howl, by contrast, grows from a flamboyant, self-absorbed coward (who is still so roguishly charming you can’t help but smile) into a courageous man of sacrifice who declares, “ I’m done running away, now that I have something I want to protect. It’s you, Sophie.”
Love changes them both for the better, and more importantly, we can see how each’s strengths make up for the other’s lack. Sophie brings maturity and virtue to Howl’s petulance; Howl brings joy and levity to dour Sophie. But in the end, it is Sophie who saves both herself from her curse and Howl from becoming an inhuman monster. What a triumph!
In the background of this budding romance, though, are the drums of war. We never quite know why the countries are fighting each other (and I believe that was a very intentional point Miyazaki wanted to make), but we see the ruinous consequences. Out in the mountains, Sophie and co. are enjoying pastoral quietude; but in the cities, there are bombs, fires, terrible machines of destruction, and refugees (but no corpses). Howl can commute himself into a giant raven-like creature and there are several scenes where he is fighting similar monsters against a fiery backdrop. When he returns from skirmishes, he is bloody in a way that might frighten younger children. There are also blobby, lumpy, tar monsters and flying, fanged henchmen. Additionally, there is a character who smokes a cigar and calls it “a pleasure”, a brief shot of bloomers under a girl’s skirt, and a one-off joke where Howl, wrapped in a towel, loses it on the stairs and Sophie pointedly looks upwards. No nudity is shown in this scene, except for a slight hint of Howl’s hip/butt. These aspects make the movie most suitable for children ages 8 and up.
Magic is very present in this film. There are transformations aplenty, along with wizards and witches who use spells, magic circles made from chalk, a “fire demon” who is certainly fiery but far from demonic, and one mildly dark scene where Howl, in the throes of a tantrum, summons “spirits of darkness” (shadowy shapes on the wall) before Sophie snaps him out of it.
Although it is at times heavy or serious, ultimately I really enjoy this heartwarming tale of love and courage set in a fantastic, immersive world, and I think your family will, too.
Howl’s Moving Castle: Where to Watch
Watch the movie trailer
Grab the Bluray
Howl’s Moving Castle Discussion Questions
- What does Sophie want at the beginning of the movie? What does she want in the end? What does Howl want initially? What does he want in the end?
- How does Sophie’s external appearance mirror her heart? How does Howl’s?
- Were you surprised by the Witch of the Waste’s fate? Contrast her “end” with typical fairy tale villains like Ursula, Jafar, The Evil Queen, Maleficent, etc.
- Look at a picture of Sophie and Howl from the first time they met (walking over the town) and then look at a picture of them from the very end (after she returns his heart). How have they changed, and how does their appearance (character design) reflect that?
- What does Miyazaki say about war in this film? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
- What’s the difference between friends and family? Notice that Howl first calls Sophie and Markl “my friends” but by the end of the film, he refers to “our family.” What has changed?
This post is one of several in our series, “A Parent’s Guide to Studio Ghibli.”
Check out all of the Studio Ghibli Guides:
- Parent’s Guide to The Secret World of Arrietty from Studio Ghibli - September 16, 2019
- Parent’s Guide to Ponyo from Studio Ghibli - September 9, 2019
- Parent’s Guide to The Cat Returns from Studio Ghibli - August 26, 2019