I know this has been out for ages, and I’ve seen it a dozen times, but I still love it as much as I did the first time I saw it.
The basic premise of the story is that there’s a dreadful war, and the King has enlisted the wizards and witches of the realm for fighting. Howl is part of the resistance, and travels around the world in his “castle” — a magical steampunk contraction controlled by a fire demon. Sophie is an innocent, quiet hatmaker, who accidentally gets mixed up with the war when she is rescued by Howl from some lecherous soldiers.
"Don’t worry, he only preys on pretty girls."
I love Sophie. She starts out as the hard-working, good daughter who rarely goes out or has fun. But on a trip across town to visit her sister, who is beautiful and lively and loved by everyone, she finds herself in a alley with some soldiers who won’t leave her alone. Suddenly Howl appears by her side and runs the soldiers off. Unfortunately, he’s being followed by magical black blob henchmen. He and Sophie take a magical sky-walking trip to evade them. Sadly, because Howl has shown her this favoritism, the Witch of the Waste pays a visit to Sophie in her shop and curses her, turning her into a very, very old woman.
But instead of taking her curse and finding a way of living with it, she gets a sudden burst of bravery and heads out into the Waste to find a way to have her curse removed. It’s there where she gets picked up by the moving castle and joins them as their cleaning lady, and her real adventure begins.
"Well, the nice thing about being old is you’ve got nothing much to lose."
The relationship between Sophie and Howl is magical and transcends time and space, just like Howl himself. Is she there to save him or he to save her? Or a little bit of both? I love how, as their relationship changes, she becomes younger, and closer to her “real,” uncursed self. It’s as though we get small glimpses of the true Sophie, the one who was hidden all along.
In the castle, she wrecks havoc as she goes on a cleaning spree. She befriends the young wizard apprentice, Markl, and even manages to charm Calcifer, the fire demon. She makes an agreement with Calcifer to help him break the spell that binds him to Howl and the castle, and in return he’ll help her.
“They say that the best blaze brightest when circumstances at are their worst.”
The main theme of the movie is about how war harms all the people involved. The innocent civilians have their homes and businesses bombed out. The fighters die. Those who use magic for evil purposes will be permanently transformed into the monsters they become for war. But even those who are resisting the evil will be harmed by the effort, and run the risk of becoming monsters themselves.
I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Just know that the magic is amazing, and the true hero of the whole thing is Sophie. Along the way, they pick up a great menagerie of houseguests (castle-guests?) and form a wonderful family held together by their genuine love for each other.
She’s feisty and strong. She doesn’t take no for an answer, and she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She fights the black blobs, takes command of the castle, and keeps everyone in line. She keeps the family together under the toughest circumstances. She’s not a witch, just an ordinary girl-turned-old-woman, but she manages to unravel the grand plans by the King’s grand witch, Madame Suliman, which makes her the most powerful character in the movie.
The voice acting in the English version is wonderfully done. Besides Billy Crystal as the comic Calicofer, Grandma Sophie is voiced by Jean Simmons, and the Witch of the Waste is the legendary Lauren Bacall. Christian Bale is Howl, and Blythe Danner is Suliman.
This is a great story about a self-rescuing princess, because, while she may start out as a plain shop girl, by the end of the movie she truly is a princess.