Howl's Moving Castle (PG)
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Caution: potential spoilers.
This is based on a book I've never read. The film is set in what seems rather like, I would say, Victorian England (I could be off about that, maybe it's more Edwardian, or something, I dunno). But there are certainly differences, such as the fact that witches and wizards are taken for granted, and there are airships as well as trains and things. The worlds of magic and technology seem somewhat integrated, but I don't suppose it's too important to really get a bead on the world in which the story is set.
In any event, it starts with a woman named Sophie, who is like 18 years old. She works in a hat shop, which I gather belonged to her late father. She's very dedicated to it, and seems to hold little regard for herself. One day, she is accosted by a pair of soldiers, and rescued by the mysterious wizard Howl, and he and Sophie are subsequently pursued by these weird shadowy (literally) figures who I guess are henchmen of the Witch of the Waste. They get away, but later the witch herself appears in the shop, and places a spell on Sophie that turns her into an old woman. So, the next day, she leaves home and heads toward the land of witches and wizards, I guess. She's befriended by a silent scarecrow who she calls Turnip Head, who helps her find refuge in Howl's castle. Which, as the title suggests, moves. It's mechanical, and has legs. Additionally, as Sophie will soon discover, there's a dial by the door that can change... where the door opens. Which makes actually moving almost seem redundant, but whatever.
Um... Anyway, she enters the castle, and meets a fire demon named Calcifer, who says he'll help her lift her curse if she helps him lift the one that keeps him in service to Howl. Calcifer powers the entire castle, and moves it around. There's also a young boy named Markl, who is apparently Howl's apprentice. When Howl himself shows up, Sophie claims to be a cleaning lady, hired by Calcifer. We also learn that there's some history between Howl and the Witch of the Waste. She wanted his heart, and he had pursued her, but left her after finding she wasn't as young and beautiful as she seemed. So, now her henchmen will search for Howl, and cause some trouble.
However, there are greater troubles, which we get a hint of as representatives of the king show up, demanding Howl report to the palace. A war is commencing, and all the witches and wizards in the land are required to help. Howl, as it happens, has a number of aliases, and at least two of them are expected to report for duty. Eventually, he sends Sophie to report to the king's head sorcerer, Madame Suliman, his former teacher. She's supposed to let on that Howl is lazy and a coward, and would be useless in the war. The Witch of the Waste had also been summoned, and Suliman stripped her of her powers, returning her to her true old age. Suliman also says she will strip Howl of his powers if he doesn't join the war effort. Howl shows up to help Sophie escape, along with both the Witch and Suliman's dog, Heen. Thereafter, Suliman's henchmen will persist in searching for Howl.
And... I'm not sure what else to say. Something that occurred to me while watching this movie, which is probably true of all Miyazaki films, is it's unpredictable. You just never know what's going to happen next. All sorts of odd things happen, which may or may not be connected to the overall thread of the story. Most of the time it seems to make little if any sense. But it does seem that just about everyone had some kind of spell to overcome, not that I always completely understood it. Sophie herself occasionally reverted briefly to her true, young self, before returning to the old self of the spell (but neither Howl nor Sophie nor anyone else ever seemed to notice, or at least comment, on her change in appearance). However, in the end, she just remained her young self, with no real explanation as to how that happened. Though each time she reverted to youth, it did seem there might be some reason to it, vaguely (perhaps because she was falling in love with Howl). And then, Howl himself had apparently lost his heart at some point, which may or may not (I'm not sure) be related to the fact that he sometimes used his magic to turn into a birdlike monster, and it became progressively harder to return to human form. And then of course, there was also Calcifer's problem, as well as Turnip Head's curse (which is tied into the war). I just don't know what to say about all that.
There is also apparently some time travel, in the end. Which lets Sophie see a key moment in Howl and Calcifer's past. Which helps her know how to help them in the future (or present). I suppose I'm leaving out a tremendous deal of details. But it's not important to really understand everything, it's just all this grand experience to watch events unfold. That's all. I wish I could tell you more, but the important thing is, like all Miyazaki films, it's simply magical....