Young Sophie is a wallflower who marks her small-minded days as a faithful employee at her dearly departed father's hat shop. But she lives in a city where rumors of the bigger world include whispers of war between two kingdoms and stories of renegade witches and wizards—including one whose home is a moving castle. One day, Sophie's mundane world is forever altered when a young, mysterious wizard rescues her from the unwanted advances of two soldiers. That chance encounter stirs the jealousy of the Witch of the Waste, whose malevolent magic instantly turns Sophie into a 90-year-old woman.
Dejected, Sophie leaves family and friends behind as she trudges into the mountainous wasteland searching for a way to reverse the curse. She doesn't get far before she meets an animated scarecrow she names Turnip, who in turn leads her to the moving castle of Howl—the wizard who saved her in the city. Howl shares his castle with a boy-wizard in training named Markl and a fire demon known as Calcifer whose powers not only heat the castle but energize its movements as well. The magical castle meanders noisily through the countryside like a misshapen mechanical animal and serves as a portal to four different parts of the world as well.
Howl himself is sometimes brazen, sometimes cowardly and always tormented—and he refuses to fight for the king when war erupts (a conflict that's apparently been engineered by the king's chief sorceress, Madame Suliman). Instead, believing all war is wrong, the wizard morphs into a giant bird and attacks combatants on both sides. Each time he changes shape, however, it becomes harder for him to return to human form. Only by regaining his lost heart, which he traded for magical powers when he was a young boy, can Howl find release from his prison.
And only as Howl and Sophie aid one another—and fall in love in the process—is there any hope for release from their curses.
Howl doesn't always make the right decisions. But as the film progresses, his courage grows, and he risks his life repeatedly to save Sophie and the others in the castle. When Sofie urges him to run from a fierce battle, he responds, "Sorry, I've had enough of running away, Sophie. And now I've got something I want to protect: It's you."
After she becomes an old woman, Sophie reasons that she has nothing left to fear. Her strong character is evident in the way she begins to whip Howl's castle and its inhabitants into shape, bringing order to her new home. In time, the castle's denizens come to see the others as family members whom they love. Thus, the importance of family, and of sacrificing ourselves for it, turns into one the film's strongest themes.
The spiritual worldview presented by Howl's Moving Castle is a muddy one. On one hand, much of the magic seems mechanical in the sense that it's not clearly drawing from some spiritual or other-worldly power source. Magic is simply a normal part of the fantasy world that director Hayao Miyazaki brings to life. Howl, for example, shape-shifts back and forth between his human and birdlike forms; he also uses a spell to disable the controls of a large warplane and makes his friends invisible for a short time; the Witch of the Waste curses Sophie, and she's instantly 70 years older.
On the other hand, several moments in the film hint at a bigger spiritual world. For example, one of the spells cast by Suliman (to deprive the Witch of the Waste of her powers) includes a chain of shadowy, spirit-like beings locking hands around the witch. Similar beings are present when Howl trades his heart for magical powers. It's unclear, exactly, what these beings are or where they come from. Likewise, Calcifer is called a fire demon, though his origin is also unclear (the film makes no reference to either heaven or hell).
Before casting one particularly potent spell, Howl draws a circular diagram on the floor that, while not a pentagram, is reminiscent of that symbol. And the king's sorceress also employs a horde of blob-like monster-men to do her bidding—amorphous creatures that can shift their shape and size at will. To enhance his powers, Calcipher eats some of Sophie's hair.
Howl kisses Sophie twice.
Two very different kinds of violence turn up in Howl's Moving Castle. The first is the common brand of hand-drawn peril you expect to see in this kind of action movie. In one dramatic scene, for example, the castle begins to fall apart and several characters tumble down a ravine without being injured. Elsewhere, Madame Suliman's nefarious blobs pursue Howl and Sophie, who are a threat to her plans.
While such cartoony violence is to be expected, I was caught off guard by the intensity of the film's war imagery. Multiple scenes realistically depict the destruction of bombs falling from planes onto cities. Powerful pictures of fire and explosions reminded me of the many black-and-white photos I've seen of Germany's blitz on London in World War II. An aerial shot of armies slowly advancing toward one another looks like WWI trench warfare. These scenes never actually show victims of the attacks, but they're sobering nonetheless. Also belonging in this category violence is a scene in which Howl, in flying bird form, tears violently into a warplane to stop its bombing run.
Crude or Profane Language
The Witch of the Waste uses the expression "god-awful." Name-calling includes "idiot" and "hag."
Drug and Alcohol Content
The Witch of the Waste has a taste for cigars. When Sophie asks her, "Do you have to keep smoking that? It smells terrible," she responds, "Don't deny an old witch her pleasures, young lady." Another scene shows a man sitting in an alley with a bottle (presumably alcohol) beside him.
Other Negative Elements
A portion of Howl's backside is visible as he sits down wearing nothing but a towel. As Sophie carries an exhausted Howl to the bath, his towel falls on the floor. Sophie notices, but averts her eyes (nor do we see him, either).
The Japanese animation known as anime continues to grow in popularity in America. And Howl's Moving Castle is a perfect example of both that popularity (it was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar) and of how the genre defies easy classification. This story, populated by whimsical characters, often feels as if it's aimed at children; it frequently reinforces healthy lessons about the importance of family and friendship. But just when you think it's solely intended for such viewers, decidedly adult elements pop up, such as a homeless man sitting next to a bottle of alcohol, soldiers hitting on Sophie, or the Witch of the Waste smoking her cigars. Also too much for the very young to handle or fully understand is Howl's commentary on war. Calling the soldiers manning warplanes "stupid murderers," he's used by Miyazaki to send a strong pacifist message. And Miyazaki isn't afraid of assembling somber images of cities being firebombed to make his point.
As for anime's ever-present magic, Howl's Moving Castle tones down (but doesn't remove) objectionable spiritual elements compared to Miyazaki's last big-screen offering, Spirited Away. The obvious animism that pervaded that 2001 movie is less evident here. Nevertheless, the world presented is permeated with magic that its characters frequently harness for both selfless and selfish—good and evil—purposes.