Since 2002, when acclaimed Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki achieved crossover success drawing adults and non-anime types to his exquisitely made, gorgeously weird film Spirited Away, fans have waited for his follow-up. They'll surely revel in Howl's Moving Castle, even if the new film's similar story means this outing into the fantastic isn't quite as thrilling. Regardless, it's a magical mystery trip worth taking.
Once again, the protagonist is a young, effectively orphaned girl. Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) makes hats in a time and a place that resemble a small European village at the turn of the 20th century. Leaving work one night, she is literally swept up by Howl, a local wizard whom residents occasionally spot trekking across the countryside in his moving castle. Howl flies the astonished Sophie over her town as a sort of flirtatious prank before depositing her near her home, but his act has attracted the attention of the Witch of the Waste, a corpulent meanie with half-a-dozen chins (and the husky tones of Lauren Bacall).
The witch curses Sophie, turning her into a 90-year-old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). Mortified, Sophie flees into the countryside where a silent but very energetic scarecrow leads her into Howl's castle.
The castle, which does indeed move about on four spindly legs, is like one of Terry Gilliam's creations for Monty Python: a haphazard pile of gears, levers, doors, chimneys, pipes, turrets, pulleys, domes and a crow's nest. (And just exactly where it is located at any given moment is just one of the story's best bits of magic.) Sophie is adopted, if somewhat reluctantly at first, by the castle's inhabitants: Markl, Howl's boy apprentice; Calcifer, another cursed soul living now as a cranky bit of fire (voice of Billy Crystal); and Howl, whose own identity appears fluid and troubled.
Christian Bale gives voice to the self-absorbed and theatrical Howl; with his flowing locks, dangly earrings and a white puffy shirt, he resembles some New Romantic pop star (and a scene in his bedroom recalls the childlike yet baroque bizarreness of Michael Jackson's Neverland). Befitting such a prima donna, Howl treats us to a spectacularly rendered pout that was one of my favorite scenes.
Once Sophie moves into Howl's castle, the story, which Miyazaki adapted from a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, gets complicated, and to say more would spoil some of the film's twists and turns. Suffice to say that Sophie, now known as Grandma Sophie, must make her way through treachery, warfare and a deeply unpredictable cast of characters in order to restore herself and others to their rightful identities.
Physical transformation is a recurring theme in Howl, where even the few characters who haven't been cursed dabble in misdirection or disguise. Yet the film's foremost curse -- being made very, very old -- is not the crippling blow one initially assumes it to be. Grandma Sophie complains at first; her creaky body doesn't maneuver so well. But as she settles into Howl's chaotic milieu, she generously shares her acquired wisdom and skills, speaks bluntly (as the timid teen-ager she once was could never do) and refuses to let her age impede her goals and desires. Is it any wonder that in such moments of perseverance Grandma Sophie almost imperceptively morphs back into young Sophie? The curse, it's suggested, is only as limiting as one chooses to let it be.
Perhaps it's because the film is based on an existing work rather than springing directly from Miyazaki's imagination, but Howl doesn't have the sheer other-world weirdness of Spirited Away, which at times felt hallucinatory, nor is it as moody. That's not to say that Howl, with its nonlinear narrative jumps, odd creatures and complicated storyline, is anything but captivating and rewarding. At nearly two hours, and with a storyline pitched above the three-footers, even the small children in the preview audience were held rapt.
The animation, naturally, is dazzling; Miyazaki employs a combination of approaches, relying on hand-drawn techniques for the characters while digitally filling in some backgrounds. As audiences, we've grown used to spectacular animation, but Miyazaki never lets us forget the artistry with which he creates his films. For all the hurly-burly of a battle sequence, Miyazaki will linger in another, allowing us to enjoy the lush scenery of an alpine meadow or to study the exquisite close-up details of young Sophie's slender fingers stitching an artificial flower to a hat. Another scene, such as the castle's ramble across the hillsides, both charms with quiet beauty and astounds with its fantastic quality. How easily Miyazaki makes the castle a living thing; with each step it heaves and bends with a fluidity that belies its heaped-upon mechanical appearance.
Indeed, that's Miyazaki's gift -- to make these two-dimensional images pulse, enchanting and intriguing us with unlikely physicality and their vivid inner lives -- that renders his films so satisfying. Our heads tell us, "No, it's just a cartoon," but his artistic vision trumps logic and we're quickly enraptured, willingly spirited away to another dreamscape.