IÃ¢Â€Â™ve been a long-time fan of Miyazaki films since long before they started getting translated into English. My Neighbor Totoro and KikiÃ¢Â€Â™s Delivery Service are two of the best animated films ever made.
To my knowledge, HowlÃ¢Â€Â™s Moving Castle is the first time Miyazaki has used a book as the basis for one of his films instead of writing his own story. As it turns out, there are so many changes to the plot from book to film that they have little in common. People who have read the book may be disappointed that so much of the original story is omitted. Although the result holds up well on its own, details and motivations that were well defined in the book are lost on screen. I found that having read the book beforehand helped explain many events that happen in the film that would otherwise be unclear, but it also frustrated me that many of the changes seemed unnecessary and confusing.
Whereas there has often been a love element in MiyazakiÃ¢Â€Â™s films, this one is the first to make it the main focus of the plot, and in that is its salvation. The main charactersÃ¢Â€Â™ feelings come through beautifully and the rich artwork and attention to detail immerse you in the story. Emotions that were treated lightly in the book are more intense in the movie, and my wife and I were often moved to tears.
Conversely, there were also many charming and humorous moments. Miyazaki made many surprising plot twists and even in the most serious moments the pace never bogged down. Billy Crystal was delightful as Calcifer the fire demon, a very pleasant surprise!
I just watched the movie for the second time, and it showed me that much of what seemed confusing is simply subtle, so with each watching it all makes more sense. For instance, the heroine, Sophie, has been cursed and now is an old woman even though she actually is quite young. During the course of the movie, she is constantly changing back and forth to younger versions of herself (a departure from the book). This was quite confusing, especially to younger viewers. But there is an explanation, although it takes some thought to arrive at it. In fact, this is the MAJOR POINT of the story, key to understanding it fully!
In the past, Miyazaki films were renown for their wonderful background music. Unfortunately, the last several have had lackluster theme music and Howl is no exception.
So I emphasize that this is a movie that you need to see several times to get the complete picture. And that also ends up being a good deal of its charm, the mark of a well-made movie that operates on many levels.
The answers to these questions are key to understanding the story and need some thought:
1) Why does Sophie leave her home when she is changed into an old woman?
2) Why does Sophie accept her transformation so easily?
3) What is the pattern to when Sophie transforms to become younger? Why does she able to do so?
4) What is Calcifer and why does Howl swallow him as a boy? (hint: What happens to CalciferÃ¢Â€Â™s companions?)
5) Why does Calcifer obey Sophie and why does Calcifer say he needs Sophie, specifically, to give Howl back his heart?
6) Why was the Wicked Witch of the Waste chasing Howl?