Japanese animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki dips again into the cavernous well of a vibrant imagination with “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which departs from Asian folklore and spirit worlds to enter a European storybook universe populated by witches and wizards. Even more than in the director’s Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” the narrative motor roars ahead in the opening hour and is more erratic thereafter, suggesting further streamlining and more meticulous translation might yield rewards. But the tireless volley of ideas and inventions make this a delight that should connect with kids and adults in both dubbed and original-language versions.
While it’s based on popular British children’s author Diana Wynne Jones’ 2000 novel, Miyazaki’s latest film remains true to the animator’s abiding fascination with radical metamorphoses and dreamlike odysseys of self-discovery and empowerment. Setting is in an unspecified time that appears to be the late 19th century and a melange of fabled burgs that’s part Mittel European and part British harbor town. But the treatment is very much fueled by an anime sensibility that often seems unleashed from the subconscious rather than appropriating a more Western fairy tale feel.
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Withdrawn 18-year-old Sophie toils making hats in her late father’s shop in a town where the frequent presence of young wizard Howl and his moving castle are a source of curiosity and fear for the locals. As she’s being hit on by soldiers during an outing, Sophie unexpectedly is rescued by Howl, who spouts wings and airlifts her to safety. They are observed, however, by oozing blob figures that report to the Witch of the Waste, an obese hag trussed up in matronly glamour-wear. The jealous witch later appears in the hat shop and transforms Sophie into a wizened crone.
Sophie flees town into the mountainous countryside, getting help and guidance from a turnip-headed scarecrow who bounces around like a pogo stick. Looking for shelter from the rain, she boldly enters Howl’s castle.
One of the most dazzling of the film’s many creations, the castle is like something out of Monty Python via Hieronymus Bosch: a massive tangle of mini-cottages, smokestacks, cogs, wheels, turrets and prehistoric wings, carried aloft by huge bird-like feet.
Inside, Sophie meets Calcifer, a cheeky fire demon trapped into Howl’s service — perhaps the most ingeniously animated character from Wynne Jones’ book. She also meets Markl, a young boy who mans the four-way door that leads to a variety of kingdoms.
Sparked by her fury at the witch’s spell, Sophie finds new vigor and strength of character. She takes charge of establishing order in the house and assumes a key role as Howl is summoned by the king to aid the homeland’s war effort.
Despite the zeppelin bombers and battleships plaguing the country, the war never really becomes a significant factor in the narrative, fading in and out of focus a little too distractedly.
Likewise, Miyazaki’s story sense unravels into a confusion of events as the king’s witch, Madam Suliman, makes her malevolent powers felt, while Howl struggles to transition between human and bird form and Sophie’s growing love for the wizard pushes her to heroic lengths that help expose the true form beneath her acquired wrinkles. What’s missing perhaps, is a more driving sense of Sophie’s quest to regain her youth.
But despite an overextended second half in which narrative coherency is not always the strongest suit, the film consistently exhilarates with its wit, beauty, eye-popping color and wealth of detail. There’s often a disarming simplicity to the images — Sophie and Markl sitting on the shore of a lake amid quasi-Impressionist fields of flowers — as well as an impish spirit to the humor — Calcifer struggling to stay alight by hanging onto a log, or the Witch of the Waste sagging like Jell-O as she climbs the steps of the king’s palace.
While Miyazaki has stated that his challenge here was to create animation for old people, Sophie is a feisty lead character whose appearance as a toothless hag for much of the action never disguises her young heart and mind.
A vain pretty boy who looks like a bejeweled glam-rocker with his harlequin coat and blond shag, Howl very much plays second fiddle to Sophie, quaking in fear of his rivals’ sorcery. The Witch of the Waste is a fabulous figure, both in imperious mode and when reduced to a benign old tub of lard; and Heen, an asthmatic dog that escapes Suliman to be Sophie’s sidekick has the sly humor of a classic Disney critter.
Given the director’s distinctly Nipponese stamp on the material, Japanese voice work never jars with the Euro-featured characters.
With cel animation steadily disappearing, the skill of Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli stable at incorporating digital technology and computer graphics — characters are hand-drawn and then scanned digitally; backgrounds are 100% hand-drawn and hand-painted — while retaining the look of a traditional toon makes the peerless Japanimator’s films seem a vanishing art form to be cherished.
And while this adaptation of another writer’s work doesn’t quite live up to the soaring flights of imagination in Miyazaki originals like “Spirited Away” or “Princess Mononoke,” it remains an entertainment full of wonder and charm.
Japanese release through Toho is set for Nov. 20, while Disney has yet to announce plans for U.S. release, having first option on rights through Buena Vista’s overall deal with Studio Ghibli.