He’s just throwing a tantrum.
At one point during Hayao Miyazaki‘s Hauru no Ugoku Shiro [Howl’s Moving Castle], as adapted from Diana Wynne Jones‘ 1986 novel, Sophie (Emily Mortimer in youth; Jean Simmons in cursed old age) asks Howl (Christian Bale) if the large warship in the sky above their serene field of flowers is “on their side or ours.” His resigned response, “What difference does it make?” In his mind no side of this or any war has a righteous claim when the result is an indiscriminate amount of fire and brimstone. It’s why he has worked his way into both war rooms under false pretenses as Mr. Pendragon and Mr. Jenkins—wizards conscripted to aid their respective kings whenever they’re called. Rather than heed advice, however, they demand power.
What does Howl do as a result? He runs. Not because he’s a coward, but because he knows he could never actually adhere to their orders for violence. So he ducks their invitations even though countless other wizards and witches have aligned with the crown to sacrifice their souls and become weapons with the ability to find him. Howl moves his home (a walking heap of metal and stone cobbled together as though an architecture magnet escaped Katamari Damacy to roll over cities from different time periods and steal bits and pieces of castles from each) to different points in the Waste so as to avoid capture, its revolving door connected to four portals so appearances can be kept in both kingdoms with a twist of the handle.
Howl is a pacifist much like Miyazaki—the latter’s decision to add war as a subplot to Jones’ novel a means of protesting the United States’ recent invasion of Iraq. He’s a vainly confident young man known in town as a magical philanderer who steals women’s hearts (literally) for sport. So when Sophie meets him in an alley while confronted by two lecherous soldiers up to no good, the fact that Howl protects her from them (and then an army of amorphous blobs masquerading as humans) has her wondering how many other rumors are merely tales of terror to tell children at night. That’s not to say hearts aren’t being stolen at all, though. The Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) feeds on them to stay perpetually young.
It’s she who truly gets the narrative ball rolling since the one heart she covets without a means of procuring is Howl’s own. So she toys with the women he does let close, cursing them with spells that prevent the victim from speaking about the details in order to ensure they’re broken with genuine intent. Sophie is the latest unfortunate soul to be attacked as the witch steals her youth. Suddenly she looks and feels like a ninety-year old granny unable to explain what happened to her sister or mother. The only decision she can make is to therefore run away herself in search of someone in the Waste to fix it. Through fate, luck, and perhaps some light, unexplained time travel, she finds herself at Howl’s doorstep.
From there it’s a series of events steeped in duplicity, mistaken identities, and incomplete assumptions. Much like the war pitting together two complex sides that ultimately destroy themselves in the process, each new character becomes a multi-faceted chess piece affixed to a game-board that’s hell-bent on underestimating their full potential. There’s Howl’s very young valet Markl (Josh Hutcherson) who disguises himself as an old man to practice magic by helping customers in Pendragon and Jenkins’ shops. There’s the fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal) desperate to escape the curse binding him to Howl for reasons we believe to be self-serving before learning they’re actually quite the opposite. And there’s Sophie herself—a woman devoid of self-worth until forced old age unleashes a confident swagger that reveals her invaluable strength.
There are messages of altruism despite appearances (sometimes needing to be coaxed out by nefarious ways); the healing power of unrequited love (as long as a lack of reciprocation doesn’t cause it to turn toxic); and peace being about more than a tenuous stalemate born from a case of mutually assured destruction. It’s about love and compassion for humanity trumping any desire to steal the same things for oneself. As Sophie yells at the blob beasts hunting her and Howl for one kingdom’s military leader (Blythe Danner‘s Madame Suliman): all magic should be used to heal wounds, not cause them. Rather than always seeking a means to render your probable enemies inert, we should be looking for ways to wield their talents in support.
Because just as Sophie learns throughout this wild adventure of surreal magical fantasy: you never can judge a book by its cover. What one person deems forgettable is another’s entire world. Everyone is beautiful to someone. Everyone is kind, smart, and worthy of love as long as they believe enough in themselves to let another close enough to see it. You can be yourself to a fault and find companionship when you’re not looking for it (Sophie) or you can constantly try to become anyone else under the pretense that doing so is the only way forward and inevitably come up empty-handed (Howl). It’s why the latter throws tantrums when things go wrong. And why the former puts her foot down to ensure they go right.
The subject matter can get pretty heavy with flying warships and magical bounty hunters, but the animation proves a perfect stylistic counter as only Studio Ghibli films can provide. The way in which someone as formidable as the Witch of the Waste can be transformed into a kindly face of wide-eyed innocence or how Sophie can shift between old and young depending on when her anxieties and defenses are down are the types of flourishes suited to delight children and adults alike. Add the goofy steampunk aesthetic of the castle and the goofier antics of its energy source (Calcifer is Crystal being Crystal) and the tough moments of darkness become easier to swallow and more profound in their orchestration. Things need to be dire for heroes to rise.
That these saviors come in the form of a ragtag bunch who prove themselves to be so much more than prejudices project only helps facilitate the overall theme of empathetic humanity. Forgiveness ultimately goes a long way towards overcoming obstacles that hatred and hubris birth since cooler heads do have a tendency to prevail. It will still be a struggle and the stakes will still be high to render sacrifices profound, but hope is forever within reach if we open ourselves to its potential. That’s the one thing Sophie never relinquishes no matter how difficult things get. She finally has a family—unorthodox and imperfect as it is—to rely upon. And she’ll do anything for them because she knows they’d do the same for her.