There’s no confusing the wizards and goblins who populate the dazzling animated adventure Howl’s Moving Castle with their relatives from Harry Potter’s branch of the wiz biz. The conjurer named Howl — part romantic human dreamboat who fancies emerald earrings and tight pants, part massive bird — may be voiced with whispery gravity, in the English-language version, by Christian Bale (soon to be whispering gravely as Batman). But the worldview, the sense of childlike fun shaded with adult melancholy, and the joyful, serene attention to visual oddity and wordless beauty could only be made in Japan. And, specifically, made by Hayao Miyazaki.
When the peerless master of hand-drawn animation last cavorted with the supernatural, in Spirited Away, the director unfurled his marvelous tale from the perspective of a child, true to the real fears and equally real thrills experienced by a little girl learning how to separate from her parents. With Howl‘s, Miyazaki brings the wisdom of his 64 years to a story, dense with complications, about a workaholic teenage hatmaker named Sophie who comes into a true appreciation of love, passion, playfulness, and even politics, as well as of her own beauty, only after she is transformed by an evil spell into a stooped and wrinkled 90-year-old woman. (Long story short, Sophie’s meet-cute encounter with Howl on a city street irks the jealous Witch of the Waste, a mountainous matron of a competitor for Howl’s affections. This sorceress boasts the look of Marx Brothers regular Margaret Dumont and the imperious, Fancy Feast voice of Lauren Bacall.)
In other words, maturity is achieved working backward from experienced seniority rather than forward from wide-eyed youth. And in moments of developmental breakthrough, the young Sophie reemerges out of the contours of the old one. (Emily Mortimer voices young Sophie with a combination of Cinderella pluck and Notting Hill class; Jean Simmons gives old Sophie a lovable layering of tolerance and self-confidence.)
But enough about developmental psychology — how about that humongous castle?! Howl’s mobile home heaves and clanks around the countryside (a landscape of indeterminate Euro provenance, over which a war of indeterminate provocation is about to be fought against an indeterminate enemy) on intrepid mechanized feet that appear to be part steel, part chicken. The fixer-upper is cobbled together from a million wheezing parts, the whole thing running on flames from a combustible blob named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal). And naturally the ambulatory domicile is accepted by the populace as part of the regular way of doing things. Because, unlike the Muggles-vs.-Hogwarts crowd, the inhabitants of Miyazaki’s enchanted universe understand that spirits are as much a part of everyday life as the fishmongers and soldiers and airplanes crowding the confines of the movie frame in set-piece scenes of spectacular detail.
And curses happen, many of them cast by Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner), resident magician and foreign-policy meddler in service to the king. A surfeit of mishaps and catastrophes accrue, requiring bravery along with a very Asian sense of acceptance. Unlikely alliances are made, primarily among squatters in the moving castle itself, as old Sophie’s competence and unflappability work their own kind of domestic magic; even a barkless dog has his day, providing sweet diversionary canine silliness during times of darkest heroic crisis. As Howl’s Moving Castle makes ravishingly clear, coming into one’s own is the most heroic — and magical — experience of all.