Oscar winner, New Yorker profilee, and international name-above-the-title, Hayao Miyazaki is the one-man standing answer to the American system of corporatized feature animation, a whimsical auteur amid studio-branding homogenization. Smelling like a string of miracles, Miyazaki’s best films—including Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and the new-to-DVD Porco Rosso—are fearsomely strange but nonetheless beloved on every continent. The Disney-Miramax habit of redubbing them with showboating Hollywood pros always threatens to handicap the movies’ stateside fortunes as well, but the master’s intoxicating irrationality has proven triumphant.
Howl’s Moving Castle comes laden with burdens—including Billy Crystal, borscht belting the vocals for a fire demon. But Miyazaki’s sensibility shrugs them off, manifesting yet again as a subconscious chaos in which anything can happen but everything has emotional coherence; here as in other Miyazakis, judgments are suspended, character is always in flux, and forgiveness is in titanic supply. Loosely adapted from a popular 1986 teen fantasy novel by Brit genre priestess Diana Wynne Jones, the film airily occupies a hybrid past, half fin de siècle Ruritania, half WW II siege (Wynne Jones was five in 1939), and half Tolkienian magic play. Giant battle planes rain bombs on Tudor Euro-cities but also unleash swarms of flying war demons with pig snouts and top hats to combat intervening wizards.
The titular castle is a groaning, ramshackle house on mechanical chicken legs, held together by a griping spirit (Crystal) and home to a petulant, mysterious wizard named Howl (Christian Bale). It’s where the requisite Miyazaki heroine, Sophie (Emily Mortimer), comes for help once a spiteful witch curses her with elderliness, but because she cannot mention the curse outright, Sophie (now Jean Simmons) becomes the castle’s crotchety housemaid. Sophie’s plight quickly becomes a secondary matter—sometimes she seems to have forgotten her younger self altogether, and her later fluctuations in age go wholly unnoticed—because the war is raging, the king’s syrupy minions are hunting for Howl, the castle slowly collects an ad hoc family under Sophie’s commonsensical guidance, and age-oblivious romance inevitably takes root.
For a cartoon, it’s not an easy read—the metaphysics are often sketchy and arbitrary, transformations are a tad inconsistent, emphatic crises or coups sometimes end up meaning little. But that’s part and parcel with Miyazaki’s narrative personality: Cause and effect are less reliable than dreams and empathy, and villains are treated so charitably they’re not villains at all. It’s a utopian vision of a calamitous world, and Miyazaki’s evocation of old-school war—a night city during a scarifying blitz, a crippled battleship drifting into a civilian harbor, behemoth vessels looming and roaring with imaginary engine work—can be awesomely discomfiting. Of course, the film’s relationship with real-world sights and textures is dazzling (within, at least, the facial-minimalist conventions of anime). In any case, I haven’t in years seen an American film, live action or not, that has attended so carefully to the details of aging, gravity, destruction, and atmosphere.
Howl’s Moving Castle is being released in subtitled and dubbed versions; knowing only what has been visited upon it in the name of reading-allergic American children, I’d recommend sticking to the original. (To be fair, Jean Simmons and Lauren Bacall, as the Witch of the Waste, muster potent aural assaults.) But either way the film is an organic, childlike wonder, fabulously unpredictable and seethingly inventive.