Witches and wizards and demons: oh my! Based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones, master animator Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle concerns Sophie, a young woman jarringly swept up from her humdrum life, cursed to appear as an old woman, and fated to join in the interdimensional ramblings of a celebrity magician named Howl. Howl presides over a steam-driven walking castle, an anthropomorphic industrial patchwork fueled by a fire demon named Calcifer.
The curse on Sophie turns out be a blessing in disguise, and her journey to that understanding is the core of the film. At first provincial and self-pitying ("Do you know how hard it is to do things when you're old?"), Sophie becomes liberated by her elderly appearance: free to roam, free to sharpen her wit, free to command with the confidence that comes with experience (or the appearance thereof), Sophie mothers Howl and their surrogate family and becomes the peer of the old crone who cursed her: the Witch of the Waste.
Typical of a Miyazaki film, Howl's Moving Castle exhibits an Alice in Wonderland puckishness in its characters and their absurd situations, and an underlying spiritual calm that flies in the face of the usual animated franticness. Sophie's initiation into adventure comes courtesy of oily blobs wearing boaters, from whom Howl charmingly whisks her away. A pogo-ing, "turnip-head" scarecrow—also under a curse—becomes Sophie's devoted companion as she doggedly takes her crackling spine for a walk across the countryside. In one ticklish set-piece, old Sophie and a footrest-shaped dog "race" the obese Witch of the Waste up a tall, palatial staircase.
Howl's castle has trippy access to several dimensions: bustling village, gorgeous countryside, hellish martial wasteland, so pastels and dark grays fight it out onscreen. Miyazaki gets in some licks against the folly of war, with remote cities burned by battleships while townspeople blithely go on with their petty lives (as is Miyazaki's environmentalist wont, the battle implicitly rages between nature and man). Sophie asks about one battleship: "Is it the enemy's or one of ours?" Howl replies, "What difference does it make?"
Perhaps Howl is meant to read as "Hal," Shakespeare's profligate, prodigal prince who likewise needed a push into maturity. The film's culminative metaphor regarding Howl lyrically suggests that he learns an inverse lesson to Sophie's: divided from one's heart in childhood, compelled to "repair" great distances and die a little in each battlefield skirmish, a man must regain his purity of soul by recapturing innocence and reinviting love into his life. Unfortunately, Miyazaki clutters and obscures his themes, and pathologically undermines them with hasty narrative resolutions; nevertheless, the ridiculous and sublime ending put a big smile on my face.
Like Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle is unpredictable, rich, brimming with invention, and a little tiring. Magnificent backdrops and fine detail distinguish Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli from America's animation studios and their cruel turn to CGI exclusivity. The film may be too quaint for today's American children, but I hope not. In a cinematic world of sameness, Miyazaki's work is stunningly, gloriously different.
[Note: The original, subtitled version was not available for preview, but the American dubbed version is mostly excellent, with Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons as young and "old" Sophie, Christian Bale as Howl, and Lauren Bacall and Billy Crystal as the Witch of the Waste and old-flame Calcifer, respectively.]