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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Howl's Moving Castle is a gorgeous animated fantasy that includes mildly scary images (featureless blob-men, wraithlike wizards, explosions, and background war scenes) and a couple of dark night scenes. There's a bit of peril, when main characters seem to be in danger or possibly injured. Its primary imagery is magical and whimsical, including the rather charming titular castle, which clatters and wheezes, walking on mechanical legs.
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What's the story?
In HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, Howl (voiced in this English language version by Christian Bale) is a wizard who's had his heart stolen by a demon. His efforts to recover himself include assembling a ragtag "family" to live with him in his moving castle. These include a friendly fire demon named Calcifer (jokey Billy Crystal: "He burns me up!") and young apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson). The newest member is Sophie (Jean Simmons), a 90-year-old housekeeper who's really an 18-year-old hat-maker (Emily Mortimer does the young voice), cursed by the large and lumpy Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) so she cannot tell anyone that she's been transformed. Sophie has been led to the castle by a hopping, turnip-headed scarecrow. And here she finds not only acceptance, but also a crew in need of a mother.
Is it any good?
Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki's animation style is famously delicate and inventive (see also Spirited Away, 1999's Princess Mononoke, and 1984's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind). These jittery-edged images conjure lovely rhythms and children's perspectives (lots of low angles and dreamlike movements), while also investigating, carefully rather than loudly and aggressively, what worries kids: Why do adults fight and go to war? How is love scary as well as thrilling and encouraging? The film's answers are complicated and incomplete, but more importantly, its questions are provocative.
While keeping track of who's cursed whom and who is disguised as what can be confusing, Howl's Moving Castle -- based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones -- pits two major forces against one another: the war-making king, aided by royal sorceress Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner), and the well-meaning but childishly petulant Howl. Sophie helps to sort out his bad behavior, in part by forgiving and looking after everyone, including the conniving Witch of the Waste. Sophie's wisdom is a function of her kindness, but her unbidden transformation is also unnerving.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Howl's Moving Castle's messages and themes. Do you agree that appearances can be deceiving, that your inner self is more important than what you look like, and that generosity (aka "heart") ensures that good will, eventually, be done?
What parts of the movie did you find frightening and/or scary? Why? How much scary stuff can young kids handle?
How does the movie treat being old? When Sophie was put under a spell, how did she react to her new appearance? Was her reaction different from what you expected?
Why do you think this movie is considered an anime classic? How is it different from the majority of Hollywood animated movies?
- In theaters: June 10, 2005
- On DVD or streaming: May 21, 2013
- Cast: Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Lauren Bacall
- Director: Hayao Miyazaki
- Studio: Buena Vista
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Fairy Tales
- Character strengths: Compassion
- Run time: 119 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: frightening images and brief mild language
- Last updated: May 7, 2020
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