I have now seen Howl's Moving Castle enough times to truly believe that it is one of Studio Ghibli's weakest films. It's not quite a personal distaste for the film itself, but rather a conclusive reaction to sub-par storytelling and a plot that is not only hard to grasp but also has holes in it. Swiss cheese anyone?
If there is one thing I need to make clear, it's that Howl's Moving Castle is gorgeous. It's a Ghibli film and this is what we've come to expect, but because it's an adaptation of a fantasy novel we get something more. The lush landscape of Howl's hometown and other scenic locations, the effort that went into animating Howl, and the pure mastery of cinematography in an animated film come together to bring a visual feast to the eyes.
But something's missing. It may be Miyazaki's direction, but that doesn't seem to fit the missing puzzle piece. It may be true that Miyazaki had to take on direction of the project even though he was in retirement, but does this explain the lack of pure heartfelt moments? No. It doesn't.
The plot of Howl's Moving Castle is simple on paper, but translating it into a 2-hour film makes things a bit chaotic. The young Sophie meets a wizard named Howl who takes an interest in her. The jealous Witch of the Waste casts a curse on Sophie that turns her into an old woman because she wants Howl's heart. At the same time there is a large-scale war happening in the background, fueled by different countries that appear briefly in the script. Howl gets involved in the war but there doesn't seem to be a solid reason for his actions. Each time Howl transforms into a bird-like creature, he risks never being able to turn back into a human being. The film follows Sophie and her adventures with Howl, with her trying to recover her younger body while Howl doesn't seem to have an exact purpose but to stop the war. The plot advances into an engaging treat but does more telling than showing along the way. Yet this is Japanese animation! I know the audience would have been able to figure out certain details for themselves.
It seems that too many plot devices were installed into the script, and while the flow of the movie is constant, it lacks the magical moments that Miyazaki and Ghibli have created in other films. I love the first 10 minutes of Howl's Moving Castle because it introduces a sense of flight and imagination, but then quickly tapers off to something sub par. The magical, heart-engrossing moments that are common to Ghibli films come naturally and don't seem forced, yet Howl's Moving Castle struggles to create such a connection.
Howl's Moving Castle seems to be a bump in the road for Studio Ghibli, similar to Tales from Earthsea (2006). Well actually Howl's is certainly better than Earthsea... but not every film that comes from one production house can be a magical hit. The next film helmed by Miyazaki was Ponyo, and that film brought back the magic that Ghibli is known for. Even though Howl's was a massive success financially, I believe it would have been a greater success if it simplified its story just a bit more and focused more on the characters; especially the relationship between Howl and Sophie.
This is a beautiful film that seemed to be just a bit over its head. Its characters were believable but their relationships needed more of a connection. I wish it was more character-driven instead of plot-driven. Events unfolded to get us from point A to point B and then C. It's when the audience doesn't pick up on such storytelling that a movie has done its job in taking the viewer out of reality and suspended his or her beliefs. Howl may have been a powerful wizard, but unfortunately he didn't have the right spell to capture my heart.