Howl’s Moving Castle

Hayao Miyazaki had a tough act to follow with “Spirited Away,” his almost universally beloved 2001 animated film. For one thing, the well-deserved success of that movie inspired people to discover his earlier works like “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (verdict: not as good), and to re-visit his high-profile 1997 environmentalist screed “Princess Mononoke” (verdict: I still don’t know what all the fuss was about).

And now, for his first post-“Spirited Away” act, he brings us “Howl’s Moving Castle,” a blissfully weird animated fantasy that matches “Spirited Away” for imagination but not for overall whimsy and lovability. In fact, there are times in the new film where you feel like he’s trying to squeeze every last ounce of creativity out of himself, so self-consciously wacky are the proceedings. And that sort of thing never works, of course.

It’s good stuff, though, overall. Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones and set in early-20th-century England, it is part “Wizard of Oz” and part “Beauty and the Beast,” all filtered through Miyazaki’s uniquely Japanese creative sensibility. The heroine is Sophie (voice of Emily Mortimer), a girl in perhaps her early teens whose father is dead and whose mother is a galavanting world traveler. Sophie works in the hat shop her father once owned and yearns only slightly for a more interesting life.

One day she runs afoul of the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who transforms Sophie into a haggard old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). Part of the curse is that she cannot tell anyone about the curse — the first rule of witch club is you do not talk about witch club, I guess — and so she covers herself in a shawl and makes for the forest where all the wizards and witches live, hoping to find some way of reversing the spell.

There she encounters a scarecrow, except unlike Oz’s scarecrow, this one doesn’t talk and remains fastened to his pole. He bounces around, though, and performs deeds helpful to Sophie in her quest. Oh, and he has a turnip for a head. Why? Because why not. If you keep asking “why” in a Miyazaki film, you’re missing the point.

Soon enough, Sophie has met the titular moving castle, a huge ramshackle contraption that roams the countryside on mechanical feet. It is powered by a fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal) who lives in the fireplace and becomes Sophie’s confidant, and the affairs of the “castle” (which is more like a great, rotund shack) are governed by Markl (Josh Hutcherson), a young boy who puts on a hat and beard to make people think he’s an adult.

Howl himself (Christian Bale) is a handsome, impetuous youth, a bit vain and shallow, but a good person at heart. He is a wizard and has several aliases he uses to remain free of the king, who usually requires wizards to register with him and be at his service in times of national crisis. Howl is on bad terms with the Witch, too, giving him and Sophie something in common.

I am struck most, as always, by Miyazaki’s imagination. How would a normal person ever THINK of this stuff? When Howl cooks eggs for breakfast, he feeds the shells to the fire demon, who gobbles them up appreciatively. It’s a small detail, but you smile at its charming unnecessariness, admiring the quirky mind that would not only conceive it, but go to the trouble of including it.

Much of the film is like that: enjoyably odd and occasionally funny, though never overwhelmingly so. Far from being a masterpiece of storytelling like its predecessor was, it is instead a perfectly acceptable, pleasantly diverting fairy tale for old and young alike.

NOTE: As has been pointed out by at least a billion readers, much of the weirdness in the film — including some of the specific examples I cite in this review — are directly from Jones’ novel. Rather than crediting Miyazaki’s odd imagination, then, it would be more accurate to say that Miyazaki has just the right sort of odd imagination to complement Jones in bringing her weirdness to life.

B (1 hr., 59 min.; PG, mild scariness.)